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The Art of Bethlem Psychiatric Hospital

We went to Bethlem's new Museum of the Mind to meet exhibiting artists and poets whose work reflects on life under section.

av Nell Frizzell
2015 03 03, 11:30am

Bethlem Royal Hospital. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The grey, mock-Tudor suburbs of Beckenham collect to an unexpected halt at the red brick gates of Bethlem Hospital. Behind the rhododendron bushes is Europe's oldest hospital specialising in mental health. This is Bedlam, or it was, several buildings ago.

That the treatment of schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, anorexia and other forms of mental crisis are found just metres away from the faceless patio slabs and hardware shops of London suburbia seems quite apt. For what is mental illness if not universal, sometimes prosaic? Pushed to the margins of our lives and yet unavoidably familiar? What is life on an acute ward if not long hours of boredom, below flat screen televisions, eating beige food, punctuated by moments of acute distress – as much a suburban experience as mowing the lawn.

I have come to Bethlem to visit the new Museum of the Mind and to meet Dan Duggan – an artist and poet who was treated at the hospital for several years. "When I was admitted to the Bethlem I went to an eating disorders unit because I had been starving myself," he says. "But I always hated the term anorexia. I didn't feel it really applied to me - I wasn't doing it for those reasons. So I came up with this idea of starvation syndrome."

Dan's new book, The Luxury of the Dispossessed, has just been published by Influx Press. It is a collection of poems that, in a matter-of-fact, teabags-and-takeaways way, reflects on life in a psychiatric hospital, under section, treating starvation and working through the sometimes painful corners of the mind. It's illustrated by Dan's own pictures – Egon Schiele-like black and white pencil drawings of heads, eyes whirling, skulls stretched – and opens with the first night he came under section.

Dan Duggan, Untitled. Image courtesy of Influx Press

From a room overlooking the hospital bins, the poem Acute BLUES shows Dan confronted by blood in the shower room, "so much shit in every toilet," sleeping with his face to the fan. But while these details – the antibacterial wipes, the jigsaws, the wrists laid "face up like dead fish" – are striking, all the poems were written in retrospect, after Dan left psychiatric care.

"Everything was too close," explains Dan, sitting in the office of the Bethlem Gallery. "For many months I didn't think I would come out of hospital. But when I did come out I started writing more about what I'd seen, how I felt about the experiences I'd been through and the people I met."

Some of these people feature in the Bethlem Gallery's new exhibition, Where is the Work in the Work of Art? Artists like Matthew, who made himself a mantelpiece out of bedsheets and cardboard to try and wrest some sense of home out of his hospital environment. Or Rodney, in the medium secure ward, who does simple, line-based drawings on brown paper of the buildings, mechanisms, hinges and locks around him. Or Clive, who has sellotaped together several sheets of A4 paper to create wandering line drawings and illustrations – a canvas that can be folded away on the small floor of his room and put back out of sight of the daily institutional activity.

Dan Duggan, "Boxer". Image courtesy of Influx Press

Of course, much is made of the link between mental health and creative expression. On one hand, we argue that the anguish of mental illness can be lessened by self-expression, through art. On the other, there is the idea that creativity, too often, comes at the price of mental health itself. "When I was here as a patient, art was the driving force behind a large part of my recovery," says Dan. "If you take time on a psychiatric ward, whether it's specialist or acute, everything is very prescribed. It's organised, regimented, particularly if you're under section; if you're not back in time they call the police. The therapeutic thing about art is that it gives people a sense of being able to create and have their own power back. Power is removed from you to a great extent."

According to the Gallery Director, Beth Elliot, the Bethlem Gallery is here, on the actual site of the hospital, in order to support professional development and artistic practice for those who have been part of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust services at some point in their life. This isn't art therapy – in fact, Beth actively avoids the word – but a relationship, fostered by staff in the Occupational Therapy unit and the artists themselves.

A piece by David Carey, © 2015 Bethlem Gallery

"Sometimes people will have studied art, or consider themselves artists; sometimes they wouldn't but are working creatively and find that work extremely rewarding," says Beth, as we wander around the silent brick buildings housing Occupational Therapy workshops and woodworking studios. A small pair of glazed pottery shoes resting against a drainpipe outside the ceramics room.

It's all a long way from the old leather and iron anti-masturbation devices and padded walls found in the Museum of the Mind upstairs. But have we really moved on so far from our fear, our fascination, our othering of people with mental health problems?

A piece by Kim Noble, who was treated for Dissociative Identity Disorder. © 2015 Bethlem Gallery

"One of the things that people often think about psychiatric institutions is that they can be quite violent places," says Daniel, the kettle boiling in the room next door. "And, granted, I did see people trying to take doors off their hinges, but in all my time in and out of care I never saw violence between patients." The violence of the poems is instead, as in the case of A Police State, too often turned inward: "The knife in the/ chest, attempting to nail love down/ but missing by inches and puncturing/ a lung.'

For a collection about life inside a psychiatric ward, Luxury of the Dispossessed shies away from words like "madness", "insane" and "ill". There is a single reference to "the madness of starvation," from a poem written about Dan's time at an eating disorders unit, but in a poem like Old Horses, the process of going under section is instead described as "getting into trouble."

"A lot of people I met in hospital had got there because they'd taken too many drugs and it had affected them in a psychiatric way," says Dan. "At one point I was going to be sent to a secure unit because I'd been ordering drugs off the internet, which I didn't realise was illegal. But if you go to a forensic unit, which fortunately I never did, the idea of getting into trouble becomes more real. Also, a lot of people that I met on acute psychiatric wards have criminal records."

What comes out of Dan's book and the conversations I have with some of the other artists smoking, drinking tea and chatting around the entrance to the gallery is, in fact, a sense of camaraderie and compassion. A poem like Chinese Night, which deals simply with ordering a Chinese takeaway to the adult psychiatric ward of Green Parks House, ends with the nearly-rousing, nearly-hopeless cry that "the psychiatrists got it wrong once again/ We are Gods."

A piece by Reginald Harrison, © 2015 Bethlem Gallery

From the swapping of teabags to the choruses of Cigarette Songs, the experiences described in Luxury of the Dispossessed often seem like the coming together of a band of otherwise-alienated people. "I can remember eating that Chinese takeaway," says Dan, laughing at the memory. "It's like the whole slipshod nature of psychiatric care. It's all medication and food and therapy. It isn't like that when you're on the acute ward at all. That's all playing cards, smoking cigarettes and watching crap TV. There, the therapy is very few and far between."

After watching Dan read a few poems from his book to an Influx audience I slip out of the Gallery and walk around the rain-damp lawns and Art Deco buildings of Bethlem Hospital. It's quiet – that thick, heavy quietness you always find in the suburbs, as houses space out to rural silence – and unexpectedly mundane. There are signs to the shop, the chapel, the restaurant. Minibuses sigh in the driveway and visitors walk, unchecked, in and out of the red brick entrance. It's like one of those model villages, I think, like Port Sunlight or Bourneville; not quite real, but not surreal either. It is simply there, on the edge, almost unnoticed.

@NellFrizzell

More artworks below


A piece by Clive, © 2015 Bethlem Gallery


'Pontacherry Blues' by Phil Baird, © 2015 Bethlem Gallery


Ronald, © 2015 Bethlem Gallery


George Harding, © 2015 Bethlem Gallery

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