Art in and outside the clinic

Gideon Boie

2013, Psyche

Art has a notable function in the context of mental health care. Within public tendering, it is customary to reserve a budget for so-called art integration. This is no different for the construction of healthcare institutions. For example, artist Joost van Zanden was involved in the design of the Lumen Admissions Department of Sint-Jan Baptist Psychiatric Centre in Zelzate. The cladding of the glass portal and a skylight cast a spectral light on the white and bare hospital walls.

The works of art are modest, but defensible. The colourful interventions conceal the clinical functionality of the wide, bare corridors in the admissions department. Legal standards and technical requirements provide the typical, mind-numbing hospital environment as we know it today. In this case, art meets what is sometimes so difficult in healthcare architecture: the creation of a domestic environment for care or treatment.

Art integration is not always successful. For example, a bus stop with a lamppost and rubbish bin was installed on the roof terrace of Hotel Min in the Seefhoek in Antwerp. This is a work of art by Koen Theys in which the art cell of the Flemish Government Architect acted as a mediator. The work of art creates a resting point on the internal walk through the forensic psychiatric care home. Internees stay there as a trial in a half-open regime at the end of a treatment trajectory in the Rekem Public Psychiatric Hospital.

Today, the roof terrace is no longer accessible for daily use. The domestic decision is not the artist’s responsibility, but it does point to the compulsive nature of the work of art. Problematic is not only the safety of the roof terrace, but also its limited utility value. The closure of the work of art shows that no one in Hotel Min is really demanding for such art integration. On top of that comes the positive stigma of the bus stop. The artwork unnecessarily draws attention to the unstable state of mind among the guests who are actually at the end of their treatment.

The bus stop runs counter to the ‘invisible care’ offered by Hotel Min in an nondescript urban environment. Another function of art in mental health care is therefore urgently needed. The question is whether art can also contribute to the normalization of mental health care.

We are thinking primarily of the Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent. The exceptional art exhibitions do not focus so much on patients, but on a broad audience, often also with art produced by patients. With this, the Dr. Guislain Museum closes the circle of socialization. It is a legal obligation to remove target groups at the end of treatment from the psychiatric complex and to facilitate them in society. With the museum, the outsider finds the opposite route to the psychiatric clinic, not for care or treatment, but for cultural and educational activities.

In the Duffel Psychiatric Hospital we see the same double movement in socialization. Here, too, psychiatric care homes (PVT’s) are being set up in the village centre and here, too, the high institutional walls are being demolished in order to make the institutional site accessible to everyone. In this case, the organization of a triennial for visual arts with renowned artists will provide an boost in public finding their way to the clinic. In addition, many works of art will be retained as permanent installations in the park-like surroundings. For example, ‘The Stone Garden’ by Orla Barry and ‘Chapel of Nothing’ by Thierry De Cordier are a permanent result of the 2010 Triennial.

The Triennial removes the stigma of psychiatry. But the untitled work of Wim Cuyvers in the 2013 edition goes one step further. The work consists of two proposals. The first proposal digs a pit on the hospital’s former dumping ground. The intervention fits in with Wim Cuyvers’ fascination for waste as an indication of existential space. In the second proposal, a patient is offered a one-week stay at Le Montavoix, a refuge that the artist set up in the French Jura. The communication during the stay is formally done through the exchange of maps, which will later be made public. The only certain activity consists of a cartography of the site of Le Montavoix on the basis of three reference maps.

Proposal 2 suspends the commission for art integration. It removes a person from the industrial-clinical complex of psychiatry and offers a refuge. At that other place, the patient is admitted to a strange game of words and maps. In this way, the work of art ultimately meets – though it was never intended to do so – the aim of the Law for the socialistation of mental health care. Proposal 2 also shows that the assignment of invisible care may well have to be sought outside architecture.

Published in Psyche 25 (4), December 2013, quarterly magazine of VVGG (originally in Dutch)

Tags: Care, English, Psychiatry

Categories: Art

Type: Article