Reassembling the Self: Exhibition review

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Originally published by Contributoria on November 1st 2014.

Socially engaged art is nothing new. Exhibitions that raise awareness or funds for a pressing issue abound. And rightly so, the public profile of esteemed galleries and artists should be used for good, and as a medium, art’s transcendental potential makes it particularly effective for communicating complex ideas and emotions. Artistically, shows curated around a single issue can occasionally fall flat, coming across as clumsy attempts to shoehorn works or artists together that really don’t fit.

Reassembling the Self doesn’t fall foul of that trap though, it’s genuinely poignant to the point of being troubling, and it projects the internal angst associated with schizophrenia outwards onto the viewer as if psychically forcing you to reassemble your own presumptions about the condition. Curated by Susan Aldworth, the exhibition is an explicit attempt to raise awareness of this much misunderstood illness and is timed to coincide with World Mental Health Day, which this year has schizophrenia as its theme.

Aldworth was artist in residence at Newcastle University’s Institute of Neuroscience from 2010 to 2012, during which time she worked on much of the material for the exhibition. The show encompasses work by Aldworth along with Kevin Mitchinson and Camille Ormston, both artists who themselves have a schizophrenia diagnosis.

Taken together the exhibition is a haunting, at times deeply unsettling but above all enlightening experience that cannot fail to imbue visitors with a renewed sense of empathy for sufferers of schizophrenia. It shines a light on some of the darkest recesses of the human psyche and, perhaps more tellingly, on our own prejudices and preconceptions. A contested and fragmented sense of identity flows throughout the works with an almost palpable sense of tension.

Aldworth’s titular series of paintings each depict a skull with different organs in orbit around it in a sort of bizarre menagerie of clinical imagery. But the sum of these parts never makes up a whole body, as if reflecting the disjointed sense of identity associated with schizophrenia. Fierce scratching lines protrude prodigiously outwards, conveying a tangible pressure emanating from the skulls. Or perhaps that’s looking at it wrong. Perhaps the lines are snaking their way inwards, needling at the cranium. The lines certainly look to be scratched into the painting, like unwelcome voices imposing themselves from outside.

This ambiguous interpretation parallels the “split personality” so often falsely conflated with schizophrenia.

Ears feature prominently in many of the pieces in this series, often blown out of proportion, suggesting a reference to the textbook “hearing voices in the head”. The drab palette and medically precise renditions of body parts collaged and remixed in haphazard arrangements give these works an oppressive atmosphere, like the suffocating claustrophobia of white hospital walls closing in around you.

Those characteristic furious lines take centre stage in The Entangled Self 3 as they curl fastidiously in all directions like a web enmeshed upon itself. These effervescent lines resemble electric impulses in the brain, firing in all directions. The synapses must be malfunctioning, because it’s all becoming a knotted mess. But again, taken from another perspective there’s something quite beautiful in its organic freedom and free-flowing chaos. And despite the kinetic quality of the hair-like patterns, there is a fragility that is laid bare; we all sometimes try to use energy to cover up our insecurities, but this is especially true of people during a manic episode.

The Entangled Self 3 is a salient reminder that each of us – regardless of our mental health – has a carefully (if subconsciously) constructed identity that is at times brittle and frail, and at others fluid and free. This revelation produces something of an epiphanic moment; Aldworth’s works aren’t a portrait of schizophrenics or even of the condition itself, rather they depict the internal battles over identity that take place silently in everyone’s mind.

A chequerboard is a running motif replete throughout much of Ormston’s pieces, invoking a game of chess, of two competing sides, though one played out under different rules; the highs and lows of emotions inexorably woven together. Whereas many artists work in shades of grey – both literally and metaphorically – Ormston confidently seems to see the world in terms of black and white.

In Broken, a melancholy face grimaces silently as the head behind it disintegrates into dozens of pieces like a inane jigsaw puzzle. The message is clear, simple and to the point. It needs no mediation, giving the piece a satisfying immediacy but nevertheless a troubling sense of a crumbling personality, of a frail mind at the point of breaking. Self Portrait the Sixth sees two of the same muted, expressionless faces conjoined in an embrace of yin yang-like infinity.

Ormston’s Mandala ink drawings comprise swirling, kaleidoscopic symbols that are almost hieroglyphic in nature. The mesmeric patterns have a hypnotic effect, inducing a sort of soporific semi-stupor, as dozens of symbols resembling the all-seeing eye stare back at you piercingly. But there’s something deeply aesthetically pleasing about these Mandala pieces, they have a calming, soothing effect and you can almost detect the catharsis in the process of making them. Ormston displays a real talent for producing works that are beautiful in their simplicity.

Mitchinson’s arresting portraiture is stark in its contrasting depictions within and between images. Healer is a striking rendition of Mitchinson’s psychiatrist, at once reassuring and yet with a slightly sinister edge simmering on one side of the face. The lurid red background endows the figure with an immutable power.

Healer distils the complexity and tension inherent in the doctor/patient relationship and unleashes it on the page.

Mitchinson’s rendering of himself in Self Portrait is markedly different from that in Healer and makes for a telling juxtaposition. Whereas the vivid background in Healer emboldens its subject, the jarring red and black pattern in Self Portrait seems to collapse in on the face in the middle, engulfing it; it’s as if the background are the edges of a great chasm and Mitchinson’s face is found at its nadir.

It would be easy to reduce these artists to their diagnosis, and to view their work through the lens of the condition. This process so often happens with artists with minority voices: black artists are seen through the lens of race; female artists through gender, and so on. But the inclusion of Ormston and Mitchinson’s work goes far beyond a tokenistic gesture to give the exhibition greater credibility. They each add something artistically, irrespective of their diagnosis, and together with Aldworth the three bodies of work dovetail nicely, forming a coherent narrative and aesthetic. This harmony among an exhibition of works that take fragmentation as a running theme is a powerful counterpoint to the otherwise foreboding atmosphere. Mitchinson and Ormston’s talent is just one of the silver linings for a show which can be at times overwhelmingly bleak, though justifiably so.

Ultimately, madness is really only defined by behaviours that exist outside of the accepted societal norms. But in a society as sick as ours – so wrought with contradictions, inequalities and suffering – is that really so insane? Many of the greatest artists have themselves often been seen as nonconformists and the parallel between the artistic mind and the mentally ill one seems poignant in this exhibition.

If we really think about it, we are all nonconformists to a lesser or greater extent. We all struggle to locate our identities around unobtainable archetypes and ideals that no one can possibly conform to at all times. These daily internal battles are something we all face, they are just more pronounced for people diagnosed with schizophrenia. This realisation is both humbling and forces a new empathy with those grappling with the label and its implications.

As someone who has recently witnessed a loved one battle the condition, I considered myself to have a fairly open mind and good understanding of it. Not only did my own experience mean that the exhibition spoke to me on a deeply personal level, it also gave me a new insight and a refreshed sense of understanding of what those suffering with schizophrenia must go through.

This is the raw power of art; using symbolism to create new pathways, new points of connect and even new ways of thinking. In a sentence, art can help break down and then reassemble ourselves for the better.

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