Since the turn of the century, contemporary art has arguably become less about aesthetics and more about social interactions. Relational art, social practice, community-based art, participatory art—these are just some of the terms used to describe this new artistic focus, where outcome is replaced with process, audience with ongoing participation, and aesthetic quality with public engagement. At the same time, art therapy has become a burgeoning field, buoyed by research that indicates engaging with art can help those suffering with mental illness to express, recover, and heal from symptoms.
Located at the indices of these two trends is the new Glenside Rural and Remote Artist-in-Residency Program, an annual six-month residency in South Australia, resulting from a partnership between Country Health SA, SALA Festival, and UniSA. Designed to ‘bring new ways to communicate about and with people experiencing mental health challenges’, the partnership is an example of art as social practice, particularly reflective of the growing trend for art and healthcare services to interact (other examples that exist in the same veing are the NSW/ACT Arts and Health Leadership Group, Arts for Health at Manchester School of Art, and Tangible Memories project, to mention a few).
With discussions of mental health recovery being fraught with a lack of clarity, concerns raised about social practice are exacerbated. In a seminal critique of social practice, art theorist Claire Bishop asks: ‘If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?’ Extending on Bishop’s work, Jason Miller has illustrated that artists engaging in relational art sometimes overlook these questions, viewing their social engagement as aesthetic merit in and of itself, therefore removed from ethical considerations. Such a disposition can be problematic given that the terms on which people engage with art are laden with differential power relations, but it becomes particularly concerning—if not dangerous—in a setting such as an art residency at Glenside; a site of care, distress, and public marginalisation.
The Glenside Rural and Remote Inpatient Unit opened in 2014 as an extension of the Glenside Health Service, South Australia’s oldest and largest public psychiatric hospital. The 23-bed ward offers urban-based psychiatric and mental health services for regional patients whose needs are different to urban patients, due in part to limited access to mental health services. The first Artist-in-Residence Program at the Unit occurred in 2017 and has continued into 2018. The Chair of Mental Health Nursing, Professor Nicholas Proctor, worked with his colleague, Dr Amy Baker, to conduct research into how the residency enabled new kinds of knowledges to develop about mental health. In particular, the study aimed to offer alternative modes of therapy for inpatients, while seeking to explore the relationship between art, therapy, and recovery.
Adelaide-based painter Jade Harland was one of two artists selected for the residency’s inaugural year. Her excitement was quickly replaced with apprehension: ‘It’s hard to go into that setting and be like “hey, guys, let’s make some artwork” … [Many patients were] pretty bored, but at the same time, not everyone wants to make artwork.’ Sometimes, Harland questioned if she really had ‘any business being there’; at others, the experience of being in the environment felt ‘a bit too close to home,’ bringing up her own familial experiences with mental illness.
The first instalment of the residency looked different to how it was first envisioned. In my interview, Harland explained how the realities of institutional protocols, as well as ethical considerations pertaining to artist-patient interactions, were pronounced in this context:
It was pretty confusing because—so it was the first time they’d ever done it […] there was all this logistics stuff that they hadn’t thought of before, like getting all clearances done and police checks and things like that, which took months.
While the latter exploratory aspects of Baker’s goal were met, the capacity to make art with patients was difficult if not impossible for Harland during the pilot residency. The artists were encouraged to interact with inpatients. However, Harland was acutely mindful of patients’ personal reasons for being in the Unit and their need for privacy. Management staff supported the program, but nursing staff were less invested in the program, (rightly) focussing on the demands of their shift work rather than on fostering an environment for art making. Additionally, the duration of both the patients’ stays and the artists’ residencies were relatively short. Typically, patients stay in the Glenside Rural and Remote Inpatient Unit for a couple of weeks at a time, and although the residencies were designed to be six-months, hiccups getting the program off the ground in its first year meant the artists only had approximately two months of site access prior to their first exhibition. Together, these circumstances limited the amount of meaningful interaction that occurred between artists and patients.
Harland was driven by the opportunity to recast the portrayal of the mental health patient. At the same time, she remained aware to the danger that making art about mental health recovery could come off glibly. These kinds of artistic programs, together with public days such as RUOK? Day, are helping to shed light on formerly taboo psychological issues. While there is no doubt these days are driven with purpose and goodwill, these public-awareness efforts run the risk of alienating people with mental illness if they frame mental health insufficiently, as Elizabeth Saunders astutely points out. There remains, quite simply, too much lip service and little knowledge about how mental health affects the day-to-day functioning of 1 in 5 Australians, let alone how to follow through with support for those affected.
Mental health illnesses are complex. They’re also highly individualised and largely ‘invisible’, so gaining this knowledge is made difficult. As a society invested in Western liberal philosophy—in which the individual mind is split from the physical body—a holistic understanding of mental health is at odds with our present understanding, and the negative connotation of mental illness framed as an individual ‘failure’ is a very real fear. The risk of perpetuating the stigma that mental health issues are an indictment on a person’s character is also real.
Gaining a better understanding of the minutia of mental health illness and reframing the idea of ‘success’ became a priority for Harland. Her aim for the residency turned to capturing the environment of the Unit in a non-intrusive manner and providing a quiet but powerful narrative pertaining to mental health resilience. A small studio space was available in the Unit for the two artists to work. While both artists spent time with patients and staff in the ward, the majority of the work happened in the studio. Harland spent most of her weekly visits sketching and researching mental health care and recovery. She became particularly interested in the discourse of ‘rest’: meaning, the way rest seemed to mean something different in a mental health paradigm, and especially in a mental health recovery ward.
When people are physically ill with a cold or a broken bone, there is a common understanding that rest is required for their bodies to recover. Even though medical literature illustrates the amount of rest required for mental health recovery, this aspect isn’t as broadly recognised in public rhetoric. Harland describes:
I think what I found interesting is something I read that said […] when you think about recovery you think—I don’t know, from like injury or even alcohol or drugs [it’s something] you can’t do […] you’ve got to cut it out completely, but recovering from mental health is completely different—it’s not sequential like you start from one point and then keep going, it’s a constant going forward and back. And that kind of sparked something I think…
This spark led to the creation of seven mixed-media paintings, which formed material for two exhibitions held during the 2017 SALA Festival and Mental Health Week respectively: Rural and Remote at Peter Walker Gallery and R&R at Kerry Packer Civic Gallery.
I organised a private viewing of Harland’s works in early 2018 (easy enough to do since Harland is a cousin I regularly visit on routine trips to Adelaide).
On a tar-melting hot day in January, I entered Harland’s studio apartment. I was disappointed that I had missed viewing the works in a gallery (How would they feel in a curated arts space? How would they translate?). However, as I took in the works in Harland’s darkly-lit home, organised in order against her apartment wall, I realised there was something quietly powerful about the contrast between the relentless heat ‘out there’ and the cool stillness ‘in here.’
Harland’s paintings honoured the necessary rest of mental illness and the slow (if not pained) motions of a body in recovery. The paintings featured the same female subject, her movements (or non-movements) accentuated beautifully by Harland’s expertise as a figurative painter. The subject wrestles with her bed rest in such a way that the sheer magnitude of seemingly mundane actions, such as turning over (02:27) or sitting up (00:58), is palpably portrayed. In PM and AM, I felt as though I was shadowing the woman as she eventually moved out of bed and towards the door of her room—feeling both the tremendousness and the trepidation present in this act. Whether she makes it out of the room or not is unknown but nor is that the point.
Harland tells me she wanted to focus on the significance of actions normatively perceived as simple:
05:05 was for just thinking about someone getting out of bed and how something that we do every day and don’t really think about, you know, don’t give much thought to it ... that could be a massive goal for somebody.
The relativity of goals is precisely the kind of dimension of mental health needs to be examined in, especially in workplaces and other public settings that are attempting to normalise mental health experiences. Public efforts and campaigns designed to help normalise mental illness—the act of ‘showing up’, the talking about symptoms with those who often cannot relate—can exhaust nervous systems that are already stretched, compounding the amount of rest required. In the context of an in-patient ward, where mental illness symptoms have become unmanageable, this oft-dismissed aspect of rest becomes even more critical.
Harland’s paintings use only black and white, aiding their capacity to convey both the monotony and the vastness of mental health goals. ‘I just want to strip it back and have it just be about the image or the material that it’s painted with,’ Harland explains.
The use of black and white creates a sense of order, the careful arrangement of time, and the drawn-out experience of ‘waiting for wellness’ in the Glenside Rural and Remote Inpatient Unit. At the same time, the shades of grey bring to life shadowy elements that also form part of the experience of mental health recovery—the inarticulate struggles, experiences, and memories that lurk and disrupt the linearity of recovery for patients and those who care for them.
A black and white palette is becoming a signature trait of Harland’s artwork. Her work in the Bachelor of Visual Arts’ graduating exhibition Pretty Ugly (2016) was comprised of a series of black and white oil paintings that exaggerated the mirrored effects of time. So, too, the works in her Ragamuffins (2017) exhibition, a homage to movies she rented from the local video store in the country town she grew up in. Her 2016 works Prequel and The Passing of the Gold Mask use some colour, but only as a juxtaposing technique for the black and white portraits that form their respective subjects. ‘I feel like colour’s just a whole world that—I just can’t even wrap my head around, and it just brings … new things that I’m not ready for yet,’ Harland says.
The fact that Harland doesn’t paint in colour incidentally matches the mood of her paintings in Rural and Remote and R&R. The mix of black and white in some sections of the works creates a blueish-white, or bright white, reminiscent of fluorescent light common in hospitals. Anyone who has suffered through mental health recovery will likely know how dim light can feel like fluorescent light—painful, difficult, and overwhelming. Combined, these techniques give the impression that time is exaggerated for the woman in the paintings. Time has a regular rhythm in the Unit, but it can still feel stretched and unending. Sometimes, it’s as if time breaks off completely, perhaps folding back on itself or simply disappearing. In 07:12 and 02:27, for example, the works gradually become whiter—and then this white gradually becomes brighter. The whiteness is stretched and stretched to the point of almost-transparency before abruptly hitting a dense section of black resin that then fills the remainder of the canvas. The black resin is flat and smooth in 07:12, but dense and cragged in 02:27. The blackness in these paintings might be relief or it might be despair. Maybe it is both.
Harland explains how individual paintings in bodies of her work frequently speak to one another. In Rural and Remote and R&R the works have a sequential feeling to them, and a closer inspection of the titles reveals each image corresponds to a time of day.
A lot of my works kind of lead on from one to the next [...] I don’t know if you noticed, but that section there [points to the first painting in the series] is replicated in the very last painting [of the series] so … I kind of wanted it to be like coming full circle.
The placement of paintings and their subtle interaction with one another reflects a looped experience of time, ultimately resisting the pressures that come with the word ‘recovery’. Recovery is, after all, referential of a completed process, but framing mental illness as something to be resolved or ‘conquered’ is often detrimental to people with mental illness whose symptoms might be constantly present and/or capable of surprising them in unpredictable ways. The space Harland creates for the repetitiveness of mental health symptoms is oddly refreshing. Importantly, the idea of ‘recovery’ as a completed process is held at bay by Harland, and yet, the paintings never streamline the subject’s experience into a single narrative or represent it simply as vacuous repetition.
Indeed, an affective push/pull circulates throughout the paintings, animating ‘the mentally ill body’ as both a public and private entanglement, a body that is both familiar and strange, common and individual. Each work draws attention to details such as folds in blankets and creases in skin, accentuating the woman’s corporeality. Meanwhile, the precision and density of some sections are troubled by the splattering of thick, white impasto, which creates bordered spaces of chaos in some of the works. In others, brick walls cut sharply into voids of white light or crumpled mounds of linen and limbs. As a result, the incredibly private, bodily experience of being ‘mentally ill’ is put into dialogue with the very public experience of being in a mental health hospital, a place where ‘mentally ill people go’. This is a subtle but important intervention into representations of people with mental health illness and those Glenside Health Services more broadly.
Having grown up in South Australia, I am aware of the history of this service. Its former name, ‘The Parkside Lunatic Asylum’, was overridden in the early twentieth-century, but its dehumanising associations continue to stick to the hospital and those requiring its care.
Rural and Remote and R&R deftly work to undo these dehumanising associations. Harland’s paintings, as well as her overall approach to the residency, indicate her capacity to ensure her social practice is turned back onto itself in a reflexive and deeply intuitive manner. Public representations of the Glenside Health Services and mental illness at large are troubled ones and Harland was attuned to how social practice about mental health is implicated in these representations. Her paintings emphasise the complexities, fissures, and gaps in mental health experiences and associated representations, and yet manage to emanate agency and empowerment for the mentally ill. While Harland was clearly apprehensive about elements of her residency, her apprehensiveness is what allowed her to capture the experience of mental health illness in such a nuanced manner.
When I ask her why this body of work, like much of her practice, takes the form of portraiture, she responds:
I’ve never really thought too much about portraits in general. I’ve always just done that, kind of been more interested in people... I think it’s really... at the end of the day just about connecting with other people.
Harland’s desire to connect with others through her portraiture seems to sit alongside her desire to connect with herself. To unpack how her own experiences with mental health have been constructed and shaped, to understand how she is implicated in discourses of identity. It is no small coincidence that the woman featured in the paintings takes the form of Harland herself: she has encountered mental illness in various forms. It gives her a deep affinity with this project.
Towards the end of the interview, I comment on the materials and textures that Harland has carefully choreographed onto the canvases, noting the reflective nature of the resin. Harland enthusiastically describes the resin’s methodical application:
applying it kind of felt like it was part of the process as well, like when I laid this on I did it in a way that I would go across [the canvas] and then each time I would try and get it as perfectly straight as I could, and I just kept going over and over and that kind of felt like it was part of... the kind of—
She pauses, and I know this hesitation is because she is wary about projecting herself onto the canvas, to personalise or locate these paintings too precisely.
I make the most of one of the liberties granted to me as her older cousin and finish her sentence with a rhetorical question: ‘…the healing process?’
She sighs, equally relieved and embarrassed. ‘Yes.’
When Harland peels masking tape off her canvases to reveal straight edges of resin, she embodies a considered mode of creation and deconstruction. Her art practice helps to unravel the pathologising of the mental health patient while simultaneously allowing the effects of this pathologising to experience some catharsis.
Rural and Remote and R&R were promoted as exhibitions that communicated new understandings about mental illness and recovery. Harland’s works were described in aesthetic terms as provoking the portrait form and expanding the genre of contemporary painting. A small but crucial link between these social and aesthetic descriptions remains missing; namely: it is precisely through the process of creatively provoking the portrait of ‘the mentally ill woman’ that enables Harland to communicate new understandings of mental illness and recovery. Harland’s paintings, and the residency program at large, ultimately work to expand public knowledge of mental illness and extend discussions about mental health beyond single, disconnected days of public awareness. Her paintings provoke portraiture, but they also interrogate commonly misguided attempts to pin down mental illness, reminding us of the need for dynamic and meaningful interactions.
Much the same way that Harland peels strips of masking tape off her canvases with deference, uncovering relieving straight edges, we must also peel and reveal the ambiguous and multi-faceted experiences of mental illness: gently, committedly, respectfully.
Dr Daniella Trimboli is a postdoctoral research fellow (Cultural Studies) at the Alfred Deakin Institute of Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. Contemporary art and digital media frequently form the sites of her research on performative identities, multiculturalism and diaspora studies, and critical race theory.