Islands of Madness
3 March-4 April 2012
Kakelhallen, Mariehamn,Aland, Finland,
Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker
We started a series of exhibitions in the wake of our film A Long History of Madness in Finland, with Landscapes of Madness in Turku. Now we return to Finland, close to Turku yet so far from it, on the large, Swedish-speaking island of Åland. This closes the circle. In September we will have another exhibition based on this project, but that is going to be very different.
In Mariehamn, Åland, we foreground an aspect of the project that was inspired by the setting of some of the scenes on an island. The confining former psychiatric hospital on Seili / Sjalö has inspired ideas about landscape, and the installation piece Sissi Outside is based on the “island syndrom”.
We present nine works in a square space, set on round pieces of carpet suggestive of islands. Here we want to focus on the aspect of the film where the problematic, echoing sound renders the isolation of patients. The beautiful poster Helinä Hukkataival has designed for this exhibition renders that isolation visually, by means of the self-reflection in which Sissi is caught up. And as we know from the film, Sissi is not continuously so self-enclosed. At moments she is able to exit the tunnel of self-confinement and communicate with her analyst. This exhibition aims to show both these states: the enclosure in the ostracized madness, and the liberation in a creative potential to come out of the enclosure.
The “islands” are also thematic units. Our themes in this exhibition are: Folly Resurfaces; the physical world; social bonds; transgenerational trauma; actual analytic treatment; old history haunts the present. The following page explains these thematic units.
Under the theme “old history haunts the present”, and different from earlier installments, this single-channel installation is here foregrounded to represent how old history haunts the contemporary. It is on a large screen, outside of the “islands” proper. The rather loud piece - both audio and visually - demonstrate the boisterous, busy, almost crowded space where Folly meets Madness. While that meeting narratively takes place in the hospital garden, in terms of the deeper sense of history’s presence, the Basel Carnival with which the Garden images alternate is even more ghostly. This carnival is far from cheerful. The floats are often spooky, violent, and very painful. But the upsetting quality of some of the Basel images is not exactly or not exclusively the point of this piece. It is the presence, sometimes clash, caused by historicity. The continuity in the Basel style of music is unique. I chose this image because, even when the subject of the cortege is nice and cheerful, the double mouths of the flutists and their masks render the duality of history as it resurfaces in the present. The scale of the masks dwarfs the “real” people behind them. This can be a nice metaphor for the ongoing spectral presence of the past.
The Physical World
For the island devoted to a reflection on “the physical world” no piece suits better than Sissi Outside. Although we have published this beautiful photograph by Markus Karjalainen earlier, I chose it again because it expresses perfectly the sense in which even outside, the confinement on an island - real, physical, or imagined - leaves scars on the young woman’s soul. Her hands are unnaturally cramped, her face wrinkled beyond her age, and her body is poised between the edge of the land and the water. Clearly, for Sissi there is no place to go. In this hauntingly beautiful and yet, eerily confining landscape, Sissi remains utterly alone. It is here that, in our film, she dreams up the child she had lost by the violent intervention of the medical establishment who aborted her without her consent. The shadow cast over her lower body seems to condemn her to loneliness due to her entanglement with the past. And creeping up to her feet, the shadow seems to push her almost into the water. In the far background a beach scene offers another kind of sociality. But Sissi cannot reach it. The second video of this island is devoted to landscapes alone. As a partner to Sissi Outside this work enhances the bond between landscapes and the people marked by and living in them.
The island where “social bonds” as a remedy for the isolation of madness is scrutinised, the dead patient Ariste returns to the living in their dreams. On this photo, again a work by Markus Karjalainen, this urgent need to restore the social bonds the breaking of which had driven Ariste to madness, and perhaps death, is conveyed to a small child (Lena Verhoeff). With an astonishment that gives access to understanding, the child listens to the angry man explaining how the establishment, in the person of his analyst, has failed him, and what the meaning is of the bird cage he carries around. To remember, he says, the freedom of the surviving bird. And while behind him, one of the people who doubles as Fool and Mad shaves his head in military fashion, the two Fools who listen in are getting angrier and angrier. Diagnosis means prognosis, means treatment, means pharmaceuticals… All this in Françoise’s anxious, predictive dream. The “lesson” the dead man’s ghost presents to the child opens the possibility of a better future. This is the meaning of the children in the project. Her eagerness to learn, her enthusiastic participation in the discussion, bring that hope a bit closer. In the second video here, survivors remember Ariste, identify with his anxious search or feel guilty about his death.
Two forms of treatment of madness are confronted here. On this still we see Mervi Appel, actress and also, curator of the exhibition, picking up what is presumably a family photograph. She will never see her family again; inmates of the hospital were required to bring their coffin upon admission. This poignant historical detail contrasts with Sissi’s treatment, the other video in this island devoted to the possibility of analytical treatment of madness. While she, too, has spent more years in confinement that we care to remember, she ends up in analytic treatment and becomes eligible for the half-way house to prepare her for a return into society.The anonymous patient we see here is filmed in the historical hospital of Seili / Sjalö, where the cell we see here is still present, and was generously lent to us for the “Landscapes of Madness” exhibition in Turku. The hopelessness of the historical patient contrasts with the hopefulness of the analytical treatment today. But Sissi’s treatment does not have a real, definitive ending. She remains in suspense.
This island offers again a contrast: between the people who had a narrow escape from madness because they somehow managed to stay socially connected, in the first place with each other; and those who, glued to the violent images that is the daily fare on television, are driven mad by these images. For them there is no escape, unless the former group, among who the analyst., are able to reach out to them, stand next to them as equals, and stretch out a hand that, however tenuously, succeeds in drawing them back in. In this still, the younger Françoise is requesting from the younger Don Luis, a farmer and resistance friend of her father, to give her information about his war years. He is reluctant; he prefers not to be remembered of that horror. But she needs it, to be able to treat her patients; to understand what they and their families went through.
Folly vs. Madness
The last island is devoted to the question if it is possible to know what madness is, and if it can be firmly distinguished from sanity. “Madness Comes in Three Halves”, the video in which a former madnan, now artist, reads a poem to the children, is here placed in spatial dialogue with “Fools at War”. The photo shows the children having a tea party - in reference to Alice in Wonderland - with Mère Folle and the Man. They are undeniably having fun. But what is striking is that the Man seems to be imitating the children - drinking tea from a mini cup - and the children respond to his game. The merry-making moment in this video contrasts with the two Fools on the tank, who are acting out their sibling rivalry - although this can also be interpreted as a revolt of the servant (Sancho Pança) against the mad master Don Quixote.
The exhibition is again different from the others derived from the Mère Folle Project. Kakelhallen is the main international gallery on the island. It shares a building with the charity shop Emmaus, on the ground floor. The team of curators and organisors consists of volunteers with high expertise in contemporary art.
Like the space in Dublin but larger, the Kakelhallen gallery is a single, square room. There is a staircase leading up to it that ends in the middle of the space, which is thereby divided into two. In front of the staircase Folly Resurfaces is exhibited as an “island” by itself. As a result of the floor plan, visitors are entirely free to go left or right. There is really no itinerary.From all corners you get an overview of the entire space. As a result, you are surrounded by the variety of manifestations of folly and madness, different in each ïsland”and reinforced by the still items exhibited: there are also photos, three of Sissi’s dresses and two vitrines with props. Here and there, seating is provided.
For our exhibition, the curator was Mervi Appel, who had already curated “Nothing is Missing” in 2008. Mervi is a brilliant curator who trusts her instincts but also thinks hard before she acts. Also, she is very sensitive to the artists’ wishes - taking curating in that lovely meaning to “caring” - and thus, while she was initially thinking of an exhibition with five video pieces, we ended up with twelve because some works needed a partner piece to make sense.
Mervi had delegated the technical work to Göran Stenius, owner of the island’s primary business in equipment rental. Göran is incredibly conscientious as well as professional. I rarely feel so reassured that whatever problem arises, it will get solved immediately. This image gives a good impression of their dedication. You see Mervi and Göran trying, as Mervi commented, to master the fools in Ariste Remembered. Strangely, this piece turned out the most recalcitrant one. It took Göran several attempts to get it to work properly. The exhibition looks beautiful due to the consistently high quality of all the led and plasma screens.
This series of installation photos are snapshots I made, and some are by Helina Hukkataival, who had come from Tampere to be with us. They give an impression of the way the gallery looked.
The exhibition of six works from the Mère folle project was installed in the foyer of the Ankara Goethe Institute, one of the two venues of the Festival on Wheels. This distinguished the exhibition from others related to the project.
First of all, many people would pass by on their way to the theatre, see screens and stop by, rather than come specifically to see the show. In view of this type of audience, the organisers-curators had made extensive wall texts, one general, and one for each work. I found it noticeable that many people actually took the time to read these texts, and then spend a rather long time with each work. This made the show less of a unity but attracted more in-depth viewings.
Second, the works had much more space, since the space was large. Again, this enhanced the autonomy of the works. For this reason, our choice had been for this occasion to balance the Folly works with the Madness works, rather than foregrounding the Madness works, as we had done in the more intimate and unified space in Dublin.
Then, because of the size of the space, the exhibition lent itself to long viewing, and the sofa installed in front of the one work that was shown on projection - Folly Resurfaces - invited people to use the work as a break between film screenings. This was a nice change from the more intense visits other set-ups had invited.
Ersan Ocak (left) and Ahmet Gurata (right), from the faculty of Communication, Design and Architecture of Bilkent University, had initiated and organised the exhibition., and suddenly found themselves curators. I had met Ersan before, and appreciated very much his intelligent vision of the integration of making and analysing that I am so keen on myself. Ahmet, who is chair of the department, clearly pursues similar goals. For the faculty in which they teach, this integration is extremely important. The strong presence of theory puts that department on the forefront of contemporary academia. Their cooperative spirit contrasts nicely with the sibling rivalry between the Fools on the screen behind them.
The installation photos give an impression of the ambiance of this exhibition, and the various ways it contrasts with the one in Dublin.
Workshop on Curating: from Film to Exhibition
On January 5th, 2012, we held a workshop on the relation between film and exhibition at the City Library of Turku, by way of opening the satellite exhibition there, organised by Gunnar Högnäs. The workshop was organised on behalf of the Curatorial Program De Appel in Amsterdam, and was also open to curators and scholars of Turku and Helsinki universities. To my delight, my colleague Marga van Mechelen of the Art History Department of the University of Amsterdam, as well as my assistant Margreet Vermeulen, had also made the journey to participate.
Preceding the workshop, a screening of A Long History of Madness, the evening of the 4th, served as an opening of the satellite exhibition, and some time was left to also view the pieces there.
The morning of the 5th, Pamela Andersson, coordinator of the exhibition at the museum, gave an introduction. Her simple-sounding but profound remark that the exhibition allowed visitors to “choose a secene, enter it, and spend the time they want inside it” gave the crucial idea of the relationship between the two works. After her introduction, the participants went off to experience this insight first-hand. There were two hours reserved for an extensive visit to the exhibition. After this, a brief meeting allowed participants to blow off steam with their first responses.
Then, in the afternoon, at the Studio Space of the Library, the workshop became a discussion session. First, three brief presentations started this off. I gave an introduction, explaining how I see the “spatialising” of film. Mia Hannula gave her view of the relation between documentary and fiction in the face of traumatic events such as the violence underlying the emergence of madness according to our project, and Anna-Helena Klumpen analyzed the sound effects in a particular scene, offering insights that are important in view of the sound leaking that is part of the exhibition.
The discussion went on for almost two hours beyond the allotted time. Since this was such a golden opportunity to discuss curating in light of art-making in different ways, we were all reluctant to break it off. It was a long but very rewarding day.