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Light Exhibition


Facing It: Imaging Madness

18 November - 17 December 2011
Broadcast Gallery, Dublin, Ireland
Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker

Facing It - Imaging Madness is part of the Mère Folle Project by Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker. The project constitutes an attempt to offer museum and gallery visitors experiences they don’t ordinarily have. In a combination of shock and pleasure, confronting strangeness and beauty, they will make a journey through different manifestations of ‘madness’, rather than sitting in front of the screen, as in the cinema. It is aimed at people interested in video art, unusual narratives, and uncommon audio-visual sensations - and mental illness.


Whereas the exhibition “Landscapes of Madness” in Turku occupies seven galleries, in Dublin the selection, but also the effect is very different - another stage in our ongoing experimentation with aesthetic formats. Here, the visitor is not offered a meandering tour but a busy one-gallery experience; no journey but a turmoil. Facing a screen, something unfolds; turning around, one sees something else; listening to the open sound of one piece, one is already confronted with the images of another.


Works Exhibited

The Space In-Between

In a two-channel installation with opposing screens, offering two sides of the same story, the homeless man Herlat talks with psychoanalyst Françoise. Rather than a doctor with authority and a helpless patient, the psychoanalytic situation here brings two people together who need each other. The analyst recognises subtle aspects in the behavior and words, gestures and moods of her patient; this could have been her situation. The patient is sensitive to such recognitions - even when these remain silent; it empowers him. It is when he feels the empathy coming towards him that he can, perhaps, make a step forwards, in that fragile space in-between.
In this work, in ten screen minutes, we see the totally disoriented man acquire insight in what has moved him to give up his home and live on the street: traumas that go back to earlier generations, when the war savaged his parents’ country, as well as his own lonely childhood as an “ersatz Kind” whose older siblings had died before his birth. Both trauma-generating events come from before his life began.

The two opposing screens each present one side of the analytic situation; the edges of that space between the two parties. The viewer is invited to take a seat, in an armchair quite like the one of the analyst’s office. He or she can choose a side to watch and listen to, and thus occupies the other one, from which the view and the audio experience emanate. But another choice suggest reflection on the situation of viewing itself. The space, loosely indicated by a rug, is somewhat forbidding: once the viewer engages with the situation, she becomes sensitive to the performative quality of the space itself. It is in that space that the affects of empathy and despair, identification and anger, must freely float between the two characters. Only on the condition of that togetherness in a communicative space will Herlat be able to face it. Where does that leave the viewer? rather than intruding upon the space, viewers will feel they can go as close as possible without entering. Between fiction and reality there is a space for identification; yet the boundary must not be crossed. This is a reluctance viewers are free to ignore, but usually, such intrusions do not happen. For, the moment of considering is drives the nature of the act of viewing home.
With Françoise Davoine as the psychoanalyst, Thomas Germaine as the patient Herlat

Sissi’s Treatment

Sissi-as-patient: for over a decade, Sissi has been confined to a psychiatric hospital. Victim of an abusive father and a distant mother who turned the other way, Sissi is severely traumatised, and seems “mad”.
In the interaction with an analyst she sometimes loathes, sometimes loves as if she were her mother, we see the mood swings and the recollections that near the surface of her awareness, but not quite. Se needs to dare face it. Sissi-as-image: the character nurtures the fantasy that she is, or is like, her namesake the empress of Austria-Hungary. She enacts the regal status of her projected self-image in gestures and facial expression, tone and word choice. The video image supports her in her desperate search for dignity, by allowing her to dress beyond her means. Every session, she appears in a new fancy outfit, new hairdo, different jewelry.
For the viewer, this fantasy image appeals to a wish to be a witness. And a witness is, precisely, what Sissi never had; no one would believe her. This raises the question: if trauma comes from such utter isolation, can witnessing help? Thus, the viewer is compelled to face the performative quality of the moving image - moving indeed.
With Marja Skaffari as Sissi, Marjo Vuorela as her analyst; music: John Morton and Leticia Bal


Watching the News

Visitors to this exhibition find it completely normal to watch the screens and absorb the stories played out before them. But then, one screen shows the figures doing precisely that. Two mad patients, on in the half-way house in Finland, one in the hospital in Paris, demonstrate the maddening effect of horror. They watch, go mad, watch more, go madder.
This single-channel video aims to query the alleged harmlessness of images. Without answering affirmatively, it raises the question: what is looking, and how does it affect you?
The woman on Seili theatrically imitates the madman on the screen. The man in Paris is paralysed. Between a raving lunatic and a zombie, it becomes hard to maintain that, simply because statistics are lacking, looking doesn’t do anything. Such negations provoke the isolation of those who, sensitised to horror because of their own experiences, cannot watch without being driven into the corner of madness. And there, it is silent, like a tomb.
With Kristina Bill as Gelsomina, Ihab Saloul as Aziz


Office Hours

Three pedestals with monitors create a space where one can roam, go from screen to screen, and take up headphones. Numerous patients, all confined, all alone together, attempt to communicate with the analyst. They cannot speak, or if they can, they cannot remember; and if they can, they cannot disentangle the real from the fiction. A bit like all of us.
One patient is ready to go out, return home and retrieve her children. How sane is she? It remains a fragile line, the one that separates the sane from the mad. One patient can only communicate through reciting poetry; one can only speed-talk; one cannot talk beyond the lullaby she sings for the analyst to express her affection. This happens after the analyst has said the simplest thing: “Me, too, I would like to be able to cry.”
With Françoise Davoine as psychoanalyst, Leticia Bal as Musical Nurse, Dominic van den Boogerd as the director of the hospital; and the patients: Paulina Aroch Fugellie, Ania Dalecki, Marlene Dumas, Roben Mitchell van den Dungen Bille, Kelly Ehrencron, Pitt de Grooth, Catherine Lord, Noa Roei, Ihab Saloul. Music: Leticia Bal
With thanks to De Ateliers, Amsterdam


Sissi Outside

Eventually, all patients manage to “go out”. Not that they are ready to reintegrate society, but at least they can choose to spend time somewhere else than in the hospital. Sissi performs seemingly meaningless acts on the hospital grounds, on the island. Perhaps it makes her feel free. But how free can one be on an island, where the one large building, the hospital looms side by side with the church?
When Sissi quietly walks into the water, fully dressed, the viewer holds her breath. Is she re-enacting Ophelia, or other heroines of Western literature who end their lives in water? The looped video will soon reassure us. But the slight moment of doubt and disquiet is enough to make us aware of the threat of impending doom.
With Marja Skaffari as Sissi. With thanks to the Archipelago Indtitute, University of Turku


Landscapes of Madness

Impending doom is tied up with past doom. Landscapes are not just beautiful remnants of nature. The land has a history. It is the territory of competitions, wars, and other forms of violence. This video offers the ultimate demise of innocence. If the bare hills in Southern Spain, the cloudy beach in the Netherlands, and the watery scenery of the Finnish archipelago cannot erase the traces of the assaults on human dignity that took place there, we are forever bound to the land by the history that came before us. This is what makes human life rich, and humans responsible, even if not guilty, of the consequences of the past.
Landscapes from Seili Island, Finland; Basel city, Switzerland; Bullas, Murcia, Spain; Auxois, France; Hoek van Holland, the Netherlands. With thanks to Alberto Montoya Hernandez for leding us the title.


Experimental photos by photographer Gregory Hearns

Gregory came to the opening as an interested member of the public, along with his mother who is a student at DIT. He stayed for a very long time, and took several experimental photographs. In one, you see the two screens of The Space In-Between together. I don’t know how he did this!

Installation Views

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.

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