Non compos mentis

Part of Madlove: A Designer Asylum, a project by Hannah Hull & The Vacuum Cleaner

Part of Madlove: A Designer Asylum, a project by Hannah Hull & The Vacuum Cleaner

Do you have a pocket asylum? I took a stack of them. A pocket asylum is a tiny piece of robin’s egg blue paper with three questions about what you need for mental health. With one of those golf pencils, I scratched out ideas on how to care for myself. At the bottom: “Read in the future as required.”

These bespoke asylums were the final component of Bedlam: the asylum and beyond, an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London. My friend was visiting, and this is was the only “must-see” item on her list. As an epidemiologist she viewed Bedlam with Masters-of-Public-Health eyes. The exhibition was, after all, in a medical museum collection. Epidemiology is not only the study of how diseases spread, but how we as a society can combat it. We were also looking with eyes that had watched the election results the previous Tuesday. I think our eyes wanted some comfort. The comfort in Bedlam is its thoughtfulness in a building filled with the 1800s’ tortuous medical devices, the self-aggrandizing story of the American Henry Solomon Wellcome as ‘Medicine Man,’ and Edward Curtis’ photographs of “disappearing Navajos.” But all that’s for another day.

Bedlam allowed no photography. The exhibition lives inside my own memories only; its emotional impressions are paramount.

Bedlam begins with the establishment of London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital in 1247, which still functions as a psychiatric hospital to this day. Its nickname of “Bedlam” became the exhibition’s moniker. At the time British law established the concept of non compos mentis, legally declaring individuals mentally unsound. Compos comes from its Latin root componere, which means to build, to construct, to have power over. The law declares that people have not constructed their own minds; it removes their power. Morphine addicts, people with undiagnosed hypothyroidism, prostitutes, queer individuals, and the poor were lumped in with people of varying psychiatric disorders. As I worked on my pocket asylum, I realized that I, too, would have found myself in Bedlam. 

There was a small section of prints and photographs in the third room. It included Vincent van Gogh’s only etching, L’Homme à la pipe, an anxiously scrawled image of his doctor. A small crowd stagnated in front of it. Was van Gogh there only to to prove that this is art? Why doesn’t his time in the Saint-Paul asylum relegate his work to “Outsider” art? Who gets a voice--a voice not called crazy?

The van Gogh looky-loos made seeing the other work difficult., but even so the citrine background of La Morphinomane grabbed me. The word “hysteria” floated into my brain from my Impressionism: Art in Society class. I had seen La Morphinomane at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. At the time women were pushed to the fringes as lead in makeup, tuberculosis, syphilis, and morphine were huge medical issues. There is a reason “hysteria” and “hysterectomy” have the same root. Who gets a voice--a voice not called hysterical?

I considered Henry Hering’s photographed asylum patients. Generally I find these images uncomfortable as I wonder about the ethics of consent and othering, but these photographs were therapeutic tools for the patients as they “allowed patients to see a true image of themselves.” As part of Bedlam, the photographs can live in the liminal space between artmaking and therapy. To me they reinforced the patient’s presence, a presence society generally wants to ignore. Asylums, mental illness, and non compos mentis seem convenient areas to place voices we don’t want to hear. That’s why Ai Weiwei installed Hopi and Tibetan Buddhist monks’ songs in the mental ward of Alcatraz as part of his @Large exhibition. It’s convenient to shush dissenting political voices.

Before I made my way over to the pocket asylums, I watched a video of Mr. X’s Mobile Structure. A tiny yellow vehicle of cardboard, paint, and tape gingerly made its journey down the sidewalk, across town, into a park. It moved with purpose and with care, and I feared at any moment it might collapse. My projected anthropomorphism was nearly too much to bear. After all, each day can be so tedious. Who would have thought a cardboard car could make me teary-eyed? After November 8th, there was a ubiquitous outpouring of calls for self-care among the art community. The election season was indeed its own bedlam. While I taught this summer, a colleague reminded me that art school can be the safest place to give voice to our anxieties, our politics, our fears.

This year we have seen so many voices. Ignored voices protecting Standing Rock. Violence instead of dialogue at Pulse, in South Carolina, at Colorado Spring’s Planned Parenthood. Voices calling for gun control, for mental health reform. The complicated voice of voting (and counting those votes). A female voice campaigning. A huge, orange mouth.

It’s hard to hear them all. Empathy requires listening, and in listening we take so many things on. Harsh voices of disagreement take a different toll. But maybe if we keep speaking out, if we keep listening, if we keep building, if componeremus, if we keep making the work, we can see ourselves. Then we can heal.

But I’ll be hiding in that mobile structure with my pocket asylum for just a little bit longer.

Documentation of Mobile Structure, Mr X, 2016, film by Josip Lizatovic, 10 min. Image: Bethlem Gallery, London

Documentation of Mobile Structure, Mr X, 2016, film by Josip Lizatovic, 10 min. Image: Bethlem Gallery, London


Bedlam runs until 15 January 2017 at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1 2BE. It is free to the public.