Bethlem Gallery was founded in 1997 to support and exhibit artists who are current or former patients of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
Its anniversary presentation, entitled It’s how well you bounce, explores the concept of resilience and its relationship to the imagination and artistic practice. Our capacity to cope with adversity and in some cases, be strengthened by it, is an astounding feature of the human condition. Yet society’s expectations that we should bounce back, put up a fight and recover, could be counter-productive in how we deal with adversity.
Curated by Sam Curtis, the exhibition proposes that art-making, sometimes understood as a distraction from the stresses of life or a retreat into fantasy, might be more productively viewed as a positive and strategic response. The exhibition puts forth that creative forms of resistance, for example strategies of non-productive labour, can give rise to agency and autonomy. Working in painting, performance, printmaking, spoken word, video, and critical interventions, the artists in the exhibition adapt and transform who they are, what they do and the world around them. They resist conformity and divert negative thoughts through art and the power of individual expression.
Repurposing the institutional spaces around him as a studio and site for artistic enquiry, John Mc presents documentation of his creative interventions in the video Journey to Recovery (2016). Focusing on an anomalous section of lino in an otherwise clinically uniform ward corridor, the video draws attention to the usually invisible, and records the reactions of passers-by to Mc’s sculptural interventions. The work forms part of Mc’s ongoing attempts to explore and communicate the intricate complexities, contradictions and tensions felt by an individual navigating a psychiatric institution and the path to recovery. For It’s how well you bounce, Mc will also present a new video work that explores the cathartic capacity of art-making, as a process to ease pressure, to vent and to release tension.
Esther Maxwell-Orumbie has responded to the exhibition theme by producing a new work that consists of a tunic made from African textiles embroidered with an image of a chameleon, an animal that represents the artist’s strategy for adapting to new cultures and countries. Orumbie will produce a series of photographs of herself wearing the tunic in diverse locations across London, both blending in and standing out. Having lived in several countries during her life, Orumbie’s work explores ideas of displacement and mental health, how we adapt culturally and socially to new countries and the impact of such change. She says: ‘I adjust and adapt but I retain my culture, I am who I am – I don’t need your approval.’
Maureen Scott’s paintings draw on the tradition of social realism to describe and reflect on some of the challenging circumstances she has come through in her life. Painted in the one room bedsit it depicts, Unemployed (1972) describes the struggles of the working class, and critiques the conditions in which her family and others lived: small and cramped living spaces, high unemployment and a lack of support in raising young children, and the impact of these stresses on family relationships. For three days a week, Scott would paint by the light of a single electric lightbulb. The rest of the time, the only source of light was candles. The painting itself bears the marks of this austerity, with burn marks at one edge. Scott’s work acts as a call to arms, to stand up and resist power imbalances and social injustice.
In patron Grayson Perry’s contribution to the exhibition, entitled Map of an Englishman (2004), he uses the traditional techniques of etching and photogravure, and borrows the style and lettering of 16th- and 17th-century cartography to create a psychogeographical exploration of the artist’s mind. Instead of locations, the map depicts behaviors and psychological states, including bodies of water named Narcolepsy and Delirium, and landmarks named Happiness, Cliché, Spit, and Bad Manners. The landforms resemble the two halves of the brain, with a left and right side. The map could be interpreted as both a universal and a specific representation of identity: ‘A lot of people think it’s generally like an Englishman,’ Perry has said. ‘It is an Englishman. It is me.’
Says Beth Elliott, Director of Bethlem Gallery: ‘The artists and their work have always been at the heart of what we do: it is their vision and talent that have engaged visitors from all over the world for 20 years. We hope to continue to make an equitable space for artists, leading change within arts, health and society.’
Says Grayson Perry: ‘Bethlem Gallery's 20th anniversary is a great milestone to be celebrating. Art is the greatest asset to mental health I have; it has this amazing ability to go under the radar and it goes down little pathways which are un-trodden and yet it’s still a very legitimate way of thinking and feeling and getting on with your life. I hope that Bethlem Gallery continues to provide such vital support to artists.’
The full list of Bethlem Gallery artists is as follows:
Corali Dance Company
Lila Palmer & Rose M. Hall
Sue Morgan (TBC)
the vacuum cleaner
It’s how well you bounce has been initiated in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection, Dragon Café, Re:create psychiatry, Resonance FM, Corali Dance Company, and Kings College London. It will be accompanied by an extensive public programme of panel discussions, artist talks including Grayson Perry in conversation with Bethlem Gallery artists, performances and mental health workshops. Bethlem Gallery and Tate are also to collaborate on a series of talks and screening across the Tate galleries by artists that utilise boredom and non-production as strategies in art-making.