Opening up rich conversations

Exhibition: Art and Value at Bethlem Gallery from 12th June – 31st August

Art and Value, this year’s research exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery, brings together artwork from four artists in collaboration with researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) in South-East London. Using a rich mix of mediums including collage, audio and installation, the exhibition invites visitors to view mental health from different standpoints. The works expressively embody the bridge between the arts, scientific and clinical research, opening up rich conversations about how mental health can be understood more holistically.

Artist Leon B explores the notion of quality of life. The way in which he defines the concept does not fit neatly into the pre-set boxes featured in standardised questionnaires such as the EQ-5D form, whereby the relevant items measure to what extent one has issues performing usual activities including work, study, housework, family or leisure activities. One of the works on display depicts a large floor lino pierced with colourfully painted cut-outs. Walking up and down the ward to keep his fitness levels up, Leon B focused this attention on lino cut-outs, usually readily discarded and replaced as they get worn out. Each brushstroke offered him agency and autonomy, notions which more candidly reflect his quality of life at the ward. ‘He was trying to express his individuality through artwork and I’ve been trying to identify what it means to be a person living with mental illness through scientific research’, IoPPN researcher Dr Faith Matcham reflects upon her experience working with Leon B on the project. She further adds, ‘We were both trying to get at the same narrative, but using completely different mediums. Together we can put forward a stronger, more impactful message.’

Sarah Carpenter’s artwork also speaks of the ‘one size fits all’ concept. One of the pieces employs the well-known square circle hexagon nursery game. Placing different objects inside the wooden checkbox silhouettes in a literal way, the artist encourages the spectator to metaphorically and somehow ironically think ‘outside the box’. The gaps created by the misfits are a refreshing space for reflection. The work comes in response to conversations with researchers about the Clinical Record Interactive Search System (CRIS), which helps to ‘look at real life situations on a large scale’ and therefore ‘see patterns and trends’, as the researchers involved explain. Through her artwork, Carpenter brings perspective in the present age of data overload: ‘A lot of my work is about connecting the dots’, the artist explains.

The exhibition is completed harmonically by interactive work from artists Beth Hopkins and Robert Smith. Hopkins directly asks the spectator what art means to them, inviting them to be part of the creative process, while Smith documents his journey from patient and participant in psychosis studies to co-researcher and explores the value of understanding different life perceptions brought by neurodiversity.

The artworks exhibited are powerful in and of themselves. Yet a shared narrative prevails, in spite of the artists and researchers having worked separately and within different areas, reminding us how narrow the divide between disciplines can be. The exhibition opens new avenues of mental health research, unfiltered by the necessity to squeeze life experiences into standardised measures. In doing so, it celebrates the merits of taking a more integrated, multi-disciplinary approach.

Reviewed by Alina Ivan, King’s College London

Picture: Neuroplasticity by Sarah Carpenter

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