Control: the artist’s experience of mental illness — C.C. O’Hanlon

Define madness.

The word recurs in our every day vernacular — careless, evocative but meaningless, an anodyne catch-all curiously leached of judgement, describing everything in our lives that tap-dances on the edge of the rash, chaotic, irrational, or ecstatic, often in those sporadic moments in which we cede that which we value most in our fragile social order: control. It is a word almost as ancient and mutable as civilisation itself: born of Old English, gemædde, derived from Old Saxon and Norse, became madnesse in the late 14th century Middle English, and used just as promiscuously as it is today.

It’s ironic, then, that madness is no longer much used to describe mental illness. Psychiatric professionals and carers discourage it, sensitive to hackneyed images of straitjackets and padded cells, the unruly spill of bedlams. But no other word feels quite as adequate for those of us who are in its grip. The precision of diagnostic terminology is illusive. It doesn’t begin to describe the recalcitrant scratchiness of disordered thoughts, the high def’ b-roll of delusion, the fetid bog of chronic depression, or the seductive, messianic rush of mania. Madness is persistent, unnavigable disarray; for those it visits, always unbidden, unhinged acceptance of it can morph into a corrosive embrace.

I saw — still see — my own half a century of madness as a shipwreck, from which, in the end, hospitalisation, drugs and interrogatory therapy failed to rescue me, and even if they staunched the worst breaches, they couldn’t limit the debris field. In recent years, only the brave, the few who truly loved me, have remained to help with the salvage. None of them would want to relive the experience. I try, from time to time, in words and images, but I am not artist enough to come up with anything other than the occasional prosaic testimony, like the witness report of a crime.

It’s ironic, then, that madness is no longer much used to describe mental illness. Psychiatric professionals and carers discourage it, sensitive to hackneyed images of straitjackets and padded cells, the unruly spill of bedlams. But no other word feels quite as adequate for those of us who are in its grip.

The women featured in this exhibition are all witnesses of madness — their own, that of a friend or loved one, or of patients — and in their work, each has tried to combine specific emotional and psychological contexts with intense curiosity about how the metaphors inherent in mental illness might be rendered visually.

The British artist Antonia Atwood’s five-minute, bi-cameral video, My Mother Tongue, studies fragments of her own mother, who has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, as she sleeps, interposing abstract, animated graphical elements, cool/hot clusters that resemble neural scans, in an attempt to convey the fizzing lability of her mother’s internal and external experiences. “It is not,” Atwood reminds us, “about communicating a straightforward message.”

Ayala Gazit, an American-Israeli artist, never met her older half-brother, James before he killed himself. He was born in Israel during a previous relationship her father had, and moved at a young age to Australia with his mother. Ayala found out about him when she was 12. Thirteen years later, Ayala went in search of him: “I wanted to better understand who I’d been mourning all these years.” The result is “an alternative family album, where James exists”, consisting of family snapshots, letters, and Gazit’s own diaristic photographs.

The Dutch photographer, Laura Hospes’ work is a forensic self-examination of her own depression and anxiety, her image-making being “a way of making clear what is inside”.  Her persistent, frank engagement with a dysthymic self roots a subtle, introspective narrative binding individual images that might, at first, appear obscure or disconnected but soon resonate with our common understanding of depression’s quotidian toll. There is, too, the sticky residue of Hospe’s capacity for self-negation.

The ‘affect’ of mental illness occupies Argentinian Flavia Schuster, both as an artist and as a student of clinical psychology. Her portraits of patients confined to mental hospitals in her home country eschew the formality and detachment of a professional encounter, enabling the unsettling directness of each subject’s gaze and the tension between resignation and frustration in their postures catalyse an atavistic fear in the unwary viewer that is visceral and cautionary, as if madness might somehow be infective.

And maybe, in some circumstances, it can be. Everywhere in Welsh photographer Katy Lane’s documentary glimpses of life within a legendary psych-rock band, Brian Jonestown Massacre, led by her husband, Anton Newcombe, there are intimations of an undiagnosed collective imbalance, in which madness is almost indistinguishable from inspiration (ironically, Anton, who is bi-polar and a recovered junkie, might be the least affected). The images are a form of guarded self-analysis for Lane herself; she shares with those she portrays a history of mental instability and substance abuse.

I once wrote this about my own madness: 

“There are memories I have that I know are real, and there are those I suspect or know are not. Then there are the nulls, the irrecoverable blank spots, as dark and impenetrable as the dead screen of a TV. I hear from others about something I said or did in the past and I have no recollection of it at all: it’s as if they’re talking about a stranger. I’m gripped by a need to reach back into my past and salvage whatever fragments of my memories I can find. But it’s a flawed ambition: so much wreckage, physical and emotional, is strewn across nearly half a century… whatever I come up with can only be a skeletal approximation of the real thing.”

The artists in this exhibition have each been more successful in extracting something life-affirming and, in some way, life-preserving from their ongoing — and maybe inescapable — experience of madness. And yet there is nothing palliative in their work, no misplaced optimism, no illusion of an end-point. The result is art at its most rational.

Antonia Attwood, Ayala Gazit, Laura Hospes, Katy Lane and Flavia Schuster currently at Jarvis Dooney Gallery, Berlin.


C.C. O’Hanlon is an inveterate traveler and diarist. He lives in Berlin.

Image: Joel’s hand, Manchester, May 2010, © Katy Lane.