Wednesday, October 24, 2012

‘Bedlam’ at the Old Vic Tunnels, 21st October 201

If your goal is to create a space that fills visitors with unease and transports them away from the modern world then you can’t pick a much better place in London than the Old Vic Tunnels.  I seem to be a regular here these days, this is the third time in three months I've been here attending something or other.  ‘Bedlam’ is the third in a series of art events run by the Lazarides Gallery, being preceded by ‘Hells Half Acre’ in 2010 and ‘The Minotaur’ in 2011, neither of which I attended.  The concept here is to portray a ‘world gone mad’, an overwhelmingly sensual experience that envelopes the viewer and apparently wants to draw them into the world of a mental patient.  The focus for this is the Bethlem Royal Hospital, for many years London’s main mental asylum and more commonly referred to as ‘Bedlam’.

In practice this involves a lot of commissioned work artists in a variety of mediums.  There are  sculptures, audio-visual pieces, paintings and a number of interactive works.  While the works differ widely in their forms and meanings they’re tied together by careful lighting and the omnipresent uneasy ambient music that fills the tunnels.

You enter the gallery in pitch darkness, feeling your way along a ramp into the art space.  It’s a nice way of underlining the fact that you’re leaving one world behind and stepping into another.  What you notice very quickly once you're inside is the sheer abundance of art here.  These tunnels are a big space to fill but there’s room enough for larger pieces to breathe (in case literally), while also providing more claustrophobic spaces that encourage us to get right up to the art.  It’s clear that a lot of time and thought has gone into where and how these artworks are going to be displayed.  There are some pretty enormous works here that only work fully if you step back and let the entirety of them sink in, and also many which encourage close examination of the intricacy of design, or to read minutely scrawled messages written inside them.

 There’s so much here that it feels impossible to comprehensively write about every piece, but regardless there are some that I particularly enjoyed.

One of the first pieces you see upon entering is Tina Tsang’s exploration through sculpture of religious idols.  We see a number of statues of the Virgin Mary, each distorted and altered in some way.  They haven’t been smashed apart or vandalised, all of them look like they’ve been organically transformed or dissected to reveal something present all along.  For example, in one of them we see golden roots winding their way through her body, growing up through her and out of her robes.  Moving to the rear we discover that the back of her head is that of an owl, and her back has been excavated to reveal tiny, complicated and intricate design work.  The statues faces are of transparent perspex, and peering through reveals a video screen inside the head.  All of Tsang's sculptures here follow similar lines, and I like how they reward the attention and curiosity of the viewer.  It's also a neat subversion of the religious purpose of these icons.  They're still objects of reverence, but now divorced from their Catholic origins, their meaning smeared to encompass a wider personal and religious scope.

Another thing I particularly liked was Tessa Farmer's mixed media piece.  It seems to capture a frozen moment during an explosion in a taxidermists.  Small preserved animals float, hung on invisible monofilaments from the ceiling.  Objects seem to be have been picked to accompany them with the greatest of care; tiny pieces of rubble, concrete, broken glass float serenely in this strange cloud. There are things that seem to have melded together, skulls repurposed into strange boats, odd combinations of animal and material. I even saw a tiny preserved spider, tied ever so gently around the middle and hung from the ceiling.  This was the only piece of artwork with a queue to get into the room to see it.  For obvious reasons they can't let big crowds of people into a room with such a fragile and delicate arrangement in it.  One thing in particular caught my eye, a stuffed rat with a plant seemingly grown right through the middle of it.  The rat looked shocked and distressed at this foreign invasion upon its body, which for me seems a concise way of symbolising some forms of mental illness. 

There were many pieces worthy of comment here, and in general the quality of the work was very high.  But paradoxically, even with some great pieces, I thought that when taken as a whole there are big problems with this event.  I know a decent amount about Bethlem Hospital, but if you were here to genuinely find out what the experiences of the patients, you're going to be out of luck here.  I thought it was darkly funny that this show supports 'Mind', the mental health charity, as in many ways this was one of the more sensationalist looks into mental illness I've seen.  The the press for this event claims that it will:

"leave you questioning your 'compos mentis', an experience that will showcase the line between genius and madness has never been so thin."

And so, madness here is defined as something alluring, attractive and ultimately kind of sexy.  This is a show that goes out of its way to be dark and weird, but does it in a very familiar , and slightly cliched way.  The Old Vic Tunnels are milked for every inch of their gothic charm, the lighting and spooky ambient soundtrack all add up to an experience that's strongly reminiscent of the London Dungeon.  They go so full-bore in trying to set up this grand guignol atmosphere that you very quickly get the impression that they're trying just a bit too hard.  You can almost feel the designers tugging your sleeve as you look at a bloody straightjacket, asking nervously if you're feeling shocked and disturbed yet.   It frequently feels like you've stepped into a Marilyn Manson video from the mid 90s. 

It's a bit strange to pin down what works and what doesn't, because some of the pieces look like they might work in a different context, but the sensationalist surroundings rob them of much of their power.  In one room there's a gigantic floating eyeball looking around.  In exclusion this would probably be a powerful image to look at, but here it just becomes yet another scary thing in a haunted house.  

I think if you're going to tackle the hugely complicated subject of madness in an art exhibition you have to seriously think about reaction you want from your audience.   There's a piece in one of the rooms where you lay back, and watch a slowly evolving fractal morphing on the ceiling.  It looks cool, but looking cool just isn't enough, there has to be some meat on these conceptual bones!  This reaction of "huh, that's pretty cool" is what you have to a lot of the work here, and it's perfectly accurate: a lot of it is cool.  But if this is an examination of how people were treated in Bethlem Royal Hospital, it's important to remember that these were real people with real medical problems and it feels a bit uncomfortable to be entertained on the back of their horrible experiences. 

There was another slightly bizarre aspect to the whole affair in that as the exhibition was sponsored by the phone company HTC, their phones and logo were present IN some of the art. I'm not going to sit here and decry corporate sponsorship in art, if they want to sponsor something creative then good for them, and I'd imagine it's largely down to HTC that tickets were free to book.  But even so, at times this sponsorship did seem a bit heavy-handed, particularly when, for example, you have a sculpture constructed primarily of the latest HTC handset.

Throughout this exhibition, the audience seems encouraged to treat it more like a theme park than any serious examination of either history or the current notion of madness.  There was a big twirling swing people were queuing up play on, or mock ECT chairs parents were strapping their grinning children into to take a picture for the family album.  I can't criticise them for this, they were acting precisely as they should be acting in this sort of funhouse environment.

Perhaps this is the key to working out the worth of 'Bedlam'.  It's got a neat, spooky atmosphere with a lot of eye-catching and flashy art in it that encourages you to interact with it.  Ultimately it's an entertainment, something that has way more in common with Madame Tussauds and the London Dungeon et al than most art exhibitions around.  That sounds damning, but hey, if it can turn people onto the idea that art is fun to look at then I suppose it can hardly be a failure.  I just wish they didn't try to dress it up as a serious examination of the history of mental health care and an examination of mental illness.

All pictures © Ian Gavan

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