Thursday, May 13News For London

Bedlam: a beguiling look into mental health

The Wellcome Collection frequently hosts exhibitions which merge science and art in a delightful manner, and Bedlam: the asylum and beyond was no exception.

Photo: Isabella Laws
Photo: Isabella Laws

The collection traces the history of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, from which the word bedlam originated. It also contains artworks surrounding the topic of mental health. Content on the history of the hospital was factual, slightly dull, and did not complement the rest of the exhibition which focused more on the interface between mental health and creativity. However, the artworks displayed, and discussion around changing views of mental health were interesting, relevant and well curated.

A crude black and white caricature of William Norris, a patient who was kept chained to his bed for years, was shocking but felt relevant amongst current conversations about male prisoners being kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

An installation by Czech artist Eva Kotátková entitled Asylum intended to present a collection of fears, anxieties and phobias. However, the work felt obvious and seemed to have reached a stereotypical conclusion of mental health patients being trapped within their own minds.

The highlight of the exhibition was the last room, called Beyond the Asylum. The focus of this area was artwork and creative means that mental health patients have used to cope with their struggles. The Hearing Voices cafe, a concept created by artist Dora García, was a space where people who hear voices and can meet, and sit alongside cafe goers. The Wellcome collection had hosted the Hearing Voices cafe in the run up to this exhibition; it was a shame that they did not coincide in order to enable exhibition goers to experience this fascinating concept first hand.

In the same space is a script by playwright and artist Shana Moulton, who documents her alter-ego Cynthia’s experiences of restless leg syndrome. It is questionable whether an exhibtion is the right forum for a script to be displayed. After all, a script is not the intended format for the public to view the work, and it is doubtful whether many members of the public have actually read a script left in a box.

The plan for Mad Love Asylum, created by mental health patients painted an idyll for anyone. The design included a bakery, tree house spaces for escape and sea views. These plans reaffirmed the statement that those with mental health needs are no different from everyone else.

Where Bedlam has been successful is in its curation of a wide range of artworks, spanning many cultures and time. Displaying Sylvia Plath’s poems alongside designs for asylums by mental health patients created a juxtaposition of works that not been found in other exhibitions of similar topics. It also allowed for a globalised and international viewpoint of mental health to be developed, in a space specifically designed for display unlike many smaller, local projects. The exhibition also commissioned its own pieces of original work including Empathy Deck, a twitter account that responds to your tweets with programmed empathetic responses was created by Erica Scourti after being expressly commissioned for this exhibition. Sadly, it received only a small area of wallspace, without a computer or interface to allow visitors to engage there and then.

This exhibition has a unique combination of artworks by both modern and historical artists. It provides a forum for conversation about mental health, and discussion about creative outlets providing sanctuary for these individuals. The Collection is located in central London, on Euston Road, and easily accessible by Tube. Ideally for students, it is also always free – meaning visitors can stay for as long or as short a time as they wish. This collection will suit those with medically inclined minds, but will also appeal to culture lovers seeking alternative artworks.

Rating: 4/5

The exhibition will run until 15th January 2017. Entry is free.

For more information about the Wellcome Collection visit