Museum of Madness
»These are primitive beginnings in art, such as one usually finds in ethnographic collections or at home in one's nursery. Do not laugh, reader! Children also have artistic ability, and there is wisdom in their having it! [...] Parallel phenomena are provided by the works of the mentally diseased; neither childish behaviour nor madness are insulting words here, as they commonly are. All this is to be taken very seriously, more seriously than all the public galleries, when it comes to reforming today's art.«
Paul Klee, Diary entry (January 1912), quoting his text in the journal Die Alpen, 1911–1914
Depictions of »madness« in art might at first glance seem like an odd choice of motif, yet the state of psychological instability or anxiety reveals itself to be, upon closer examination, deeply embedded in the art world's most famous movements. Images of madness extend at least as far as the ancient Roman depictions, when interpretations used to be connected to drunkenness, dance and the full moon. In early Christian iconography of the Middle Ages, madness was often connected to divine revelations, while hallucinations of demons and fantastical creatures could be interpreted as visions of the divine. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a scene frequently depicted in painting, is just one of such depictions, where devils of all shapes and sizes try to tempt the saint to sin in a true allegory of “torturing the mind”. Throughout history, art has often shown mental instability to be a fundamental part of the human experience. With the development of the romantic idea of an artist as a suffering individual, burdened by their psyche, psychiatric conditions were often equated to creative drive and originality. In the second half of the 20th century, mental illness as a guiding principle of artistic creation reached its peak with the art of Vincent Van Gogh, while important interpretations of it were made by Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko, Tracey Emin, and many others. Why, then, the fascination with insanity? Art, it seems, opens up a space where mental illness is deprived of its social stigma and acquires a different, often symbolic meaning. To this day, art shows itself as a place where different views on mental illness are formed, allowing the possibility for other, positive interpretations.1
Simon Chang began photographing patients of psychiatric wards already in 2004, when he visited the Bohnice hospital in Prague several times since then. Between 2018 and 2019, he focused his lens on the Hawler psychiatric hospital in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Their cells are filled mainly with patients who suffer the consequences of their war-ravaged recent history. This time, the series of photographs is presented in Cmurek castle, a former institution for the clinically insane, active between 1957 and 2004. The transfer of images from a hospital in Erbil to a former institution in Slovenia creates a certain dialogue between both spaces, the walls of Cmurek castle becoming universal walls of the psychiatric hospital, permeated with memories and events that happened to their former inhabitants, and simultaneously, to inhabitants of all such institutions. Chang is a photographer who never depicts his subject exploitatively, nor does he accentuate the often shocking or grotesque aspects of his subjects. Instead, he above all values the integrity of the patients and a genuine desire to tell their stories, to uncover the layered reasons for their current states. The undertone of his photographs always hints to the real culprits of the patients’ situations – cultural, historical and religious circumstance, war and destruction, poverty and corruption, and mainly the ever-present misunderstanding of society and its rejection of difference.
While photographing his stories and speaking to his subjects, Chang often writes down the tales full of vivid personal details, moving observations and rich descriptions. Thus, interpreting the stories that happened in Hawler would be unnecessary in this text. After all, the lives of people in the cells of Hawler can only be narrated by someone who, due to their curiosity and compassion, spent hours behind the grey, filthy walls with the patients. The meaning of his photographs spans somewhere between documentation and artistic depiction. From the viewpoint of documentary photography, images are an important testament to the injustice and cruelty of psychiatric hospitals, degradation and simultaneous warmth that the photographer found in Erbil. And yet they also reach deeper, to an exploration of a certain universal human experience. In the end, they pose the obvious question – what is “normal” and what is not, how do we draw the line between deviation and sanity, and what is the true meaning of the walls which keep them apart? Chang’s images of Hawler face us with the people we most often wish to ignore, neatly stow away and pretend they don’t exist. One could say that the true power of art lies exactly therein, to make visible what society tries to keep hidden, and present it in a way that makes us change our set perceptions. In such a manner, Simon Chang offers us a different view of the patients inside Hawler. Their experience, full of personal wounds and collective traumas, is told in a thoughtful tale which far exceeds the boundaries of the documentary.
Text: Hana Čeferin
Museum of Madness
1 More about artistic depictions of madness in art in: Gilman, Sander L. Seeing the Insane: A Cultural History of Madness and Art in the Western World. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1982.