Rebecca Wade explores the history of Bedlam and beyond at the Wellcome Collection
Mental illness is vast and all-encompassing, as is Bedlam: the asylum and beyond. In this exhibition, at the Wellcome Collection until 15th January, curators Mike Jay and Bárbara Rodriguez Muñoz use the history of Bethlem Royal Hospital as a central narrative from which to explore several themes surrounding mental illness. Documents, photographs, literature, film and art, from both patients as well as contemporary artists, intend to display the changing attitudes towards mental health by recounting the turbulent history of the mental asylum. The exhibition reflects on the original resolution of the asylum as a place of refuge or sanctuary and records how this serene vision steadily warped into one of hell and cruelty. Finally, it questions whether the asylum is an outdated concept and explores the potential for its revival. Evidently, they have given us a lot to look at and many perspectives to consider.
When you first enter this exhibition, you are immersed in the chaotic and disorderly installation that is Eva Kotáková’s Asylum. Through an assortment of cutouts, drawings, written lists and cage like structures Kotáková attempts to depict the fear inflicted by mental illness. The fear of being delicate, the fear of objects holding fears inside of them, the fear of empty space, fears flying around in the air – just to name a few. The 3D collage immerses the entire room and supposedly reflects the incompleteness, disintegration and constraint which we are told comes with mental illness.
Other works, such as Javier Téllez’s chess sculpture, provide similar metaphors which aim to express the experience of mental illness. Pawns take the form of eggs in order to imply the fragility of the mind whilst the different human positions carved into the main pieces each represent an individual facet of a mental disorder. Depression. Anxiety. Distress.
In this respect, I believe the Wellcome Collection has attempted to achieve an impossible task. While its prevalence in society has increased in recent years, unless you are the 1 in each 4 people who have been directly affected, mental illness remains a largely unknown and complex issue. In my opinion, you can’t necessarily draw it or describe it. Metaphors can superficially explain characteristics of it, however you can’t fully understand it unless you have it or, at the very least, have lived and supported someone with it. Even then, it is often incredibly difficult to truly comprehend a mind which rejects reality or reason. Hence, many of the contemporary works fall short in their effort to portray what a mental illness truly feels like.
Some have criticised that, by spanning several themes, ideas and theories, the exhibition lacks depth or focus. For example, it briefly references the ideas of Foucault or R.D. Laing without much substantial explanation and only fleetingly mentions the position of Enoch Powell, whose water tower speech of 1961 essentially marked the end of the asylum.
The exhibition has certainly taken a broad approach, however this seems like sufficient detail for the majority of the public. The myths and legends of mad-houses and disturbing mental institutions are undeniably captivating. Snippets from documents, such as Bethlem’s in-house magazine Under the Dome, offer interesting but not laborious evidence. Plus, the patient’s drawings give an intriguing first-hand account of what this intangible affliction looks like. Perhaps this exhibition could have pursued a more focussed theme in greater depth. However, the Wellcome Collection has created an extremely accessible hybrid exhibition, falling somewhere between art and history. In an endeavour to raise awareness of mental health and the attitudes that surround it, accessibility is key.
Featured Image: Asylum by Eva Kotáková. Photograph by Rebecca Wade.