Stop pushing people into a river

Alina Ivan (King's College London) visits the 'Art & Protest' exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery.

For its new exhibition, the Bethlem Gallery turns to mental health activism. How can art communicate messages from those feeling that they uncomfortably fit within pre-existing power structures? ‘Art & Protest: What’s there to be mad about?’ has been curated by artist and activist Dolly Sen and weaves together multi-media artworks and protest ephemera. With confrontational content and a bold, evocative aesthetic, the works communicate a strong sense of urgency.

Sen has objections towards the current medical mental health model. She believes that the routine prescription of talking therapies or medication feels “like pushing people into a river and giving them a boat”. When dealing with her own mental health, she found the way in society handles mental health to be unhelpful: “the stress through poverty, homelessness, benefit cuts suddenly become pathologised and the responsibility for that becomes located in the person”. She urges those in power not to “push people into a river” in the first place.

An affirmation of this attitude is manifested in her artwork Help the normals [see above], a message imprinted on a charity money collection box above a subtext that reads ‘Please give generously, they won’t’. Perhaps it speaks to the absurdities of pathologising circumstances that can be understood outside of the medical model, which are sometimes concealed by diagnostic labels. What is normal, one can ask.

Colin Hambrook’s oil work The Jealous Psychiatrist also points to the subtle power dynamics embedded in the medical model. Cold blue tones depict a human lying powerlessly on a ducking stool, with a devil-like creature sat on their left side. Holding one of the many syringes and the diagnostic label, an ostensible psychiatrist looms over. The painting plays on the historical narrative of the British witch executions in the 16th-18th centuries to describe reactions to the psychiatric practice of the ‘90s. The ducking stool was used for testing whether a woman was a witch. If she drowned, she was deemed a witch; if she didn’t, she was considered in allegiance with the devil. Either way, the woman was executed. The analogy alludes to the ways in which deviation from the norm can be pathologised and controlled. “If one accepts diagnosis then they receive treatment. If they refuse it, then they ‘lack insight’ and have historically received punitive correction measures, such as sectioning or the administration of electric shocks”, Hambrook explains. Importantly, the piece opens up conversations on ways in which neurodiversity is understood and accepted.

Discrimination towards neurodiversity can hide in plain sight. Hamja Ahsan, author of ‘Shy Radicals: An Antisystemic Politics of the Militant” and a multi-media artist, stands up for a group he deems unjustly treated by the current power dynamic: the introvert class, ‘the shy, the quiet, the autistic spectrum peoples’. Ahsan believes that the power structure leaves little room for expression for introverts to express themselves. ‘Extroverted is assumed normative’, he explains, and ‘introverted is considered second class’, and often-times “in need of fixing”. He urges us to recognise a different way of being: “you have these buzzwords like diversity, intersectionality, multiculturalism – those intersectional struggles don’t understand introvert-extrovert and how that operates within convention”. This line of reasoning is explored through a short video, which compellingly encourages introverts to curl their fist in front of their mouth and know where they stand politically.

Hamsa is an advocate of the toxic positivity campaign, considering it to be “a way that the powerful in government abdicate responsibility". Nick Lloyd’s satirical “UK AUSTERITY cover manual, Tory Govt edition” / UK society repair manual seems to stand on the same page. The inkjet print is marketed as a survival guide for a no-deal BREXIT and includes, among other essentials, a list of food bank maps as well as a guide to edible wildlife. Both of these are superimposed over an image of a car beyond repair and a protesting population. The message is powerful, as is the use of humour as a form of protest.

Through the wide range of audio-visual mediums, Art & Protest invites us to critically evaluate the tenets of the current mental health care system and listen to those who have experienced mental illness. It is an excellent illustration of how art can be used as a platform for expressing reactions and opinions that are often neglected. Can art affect social change? You decide.

- ‘Art & Protest: What’s there to be mad about?' Is on at the Bethlem Gallery until 8 November 2019. 

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