By Geoff Harrision
"A friend once told me many years ago, “It’s a pain in the backside when you are driven to do something that’s not economically viable”. By which he meant - art. But then, perhaps it depends on what type of art practice we are talking about.
When I was at art school in the 1990s, I was made aware of an exhibition called the Cunningham Dax collection of psychiatric art that was on show at the Victorian Artists Society in East Melbourne. Talk about art on the edge!! Years earlier, the head of the mental health authority in this state, Eric Cunningham-Dax, had rescued from the dumpster hundreds of drawings and paintings produced by patients of psychiatric hospitals. They are now on permanent display at the Dax Centre, Melbourne University. The last time I saw the exhibition, it had been sanitized compared to what I saw years before. That is not half as
The whole issue of mental illness, of an existence outside the mainstream, has long fascinated me. Not to mention the history of mental illness in my family. (Given recent events, I would imagine the prevalence of mental illness has skyrocketed generally.) In the early 1990’s I attended an open day at the Willsmere Psychiatric Hospital in Kew just after the last patients had been removed. Unforgivably, I left my camera at home. I didn’t make the same mistake when I visited the former Aradale facility in Ararat in western Victoria a few years later.
Aradale certainly attracted its fair share of adverse publicity over the years, largely due to underfunding by increasingly stingy governments. It was opened for business in the late 1860s and, in its heyday, was surrounded by 100 acres of land. The facility raised its own cattle, sheep and poultry, did its own slaughtering, grew fruit and vegetables and thus was largely self-supporting. Coal for the furnaces was about the only thing that needed to be brought in, apart from patients, of course. The facility also had its own tailors producing uniforms, a chapel and a morgue.
Whilst facilities such as Aradale courted controversy from time to time, there is no doubt that “asylum” means refuge and sanctuary, and many of the former patients would stand little chance of surviving in the outside world. The notion of the “least restrictive environment” governs mental health policy these days; thus, we have the reality of “sidewalk psychotics”, as the Americans call them.
I held an exhibition of paintings based on Aradale at the Ararat Gallery in 2004. One of the gallery staff told me she drove past the entrance to Aradale the morning after it had closed in 1993, and she saw what she believed to have been former patients gathering at the gates. They may have been crazy, but they weren’t stupid.
Some years ago, I got fully involved in exploring issues in my art and produced rubbish more often than not. So while the issue of deinstitutionalization still lingers in the back of my mind (as I see it as a symptom of a less caring society), I’ve learned to focus on the art. Perhaps it’s better to cajole someone to a particular point of view rather than browbeating them."
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