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Simon Chang, Psihiatrična bolnišnica Hawler v Erbilu v Južnem Kurdistanu v Iraku
Text: Hana Čeferin
Museum of Madness

»These are primitive beginnings in art, such as one usually finds in ethnographic collections or at home in one's nursery. Do not laugh, reader! Children also have artistic ability, and there is wisdom in their having it! [...] Parallel phenomena are provided by the works of the mentally diseased; neither childish behaviour nor madness are insulting words here, as they commonly are. All this is to be taken very seriously, more seriously than all the public galleries, when it comes to reforming today's art.«

Paul Klee, Diary entry (January 1912), quoting his text in the journal Die Alpen, 1911–1914

Depictions of »madness« in art might at first glance seem like an odd choice of motif, yet the state of psychological instability or anxiety reveals itself to be, upon closer examination, deeply embedded in the art world's most famous movements. Images of madness extend at least as far as the ancient Roman depictions, when interpretations used to be connected to drunkenness, dance and the full moon. In early Christian iconography of the Middle Ages, madness was often connected to divine revelations, while hallucinations of demons and fantastical creatures could be interpreted as visions of the divine. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a scene frequently depicted in painting, is just one of such depictions, where devils of all shapes and sizes try to tempt the saint to sin in a true allegory of “torturing the mind”. Throughout history, art has often shown mental instability to be a fundamental part of the human experience. With the development of the romantic idea of an artist as a suffering individual, burdened by their psyche, psychiatric conditions were often equated to creative drive and originality. In the second half of the 20th century, mental illness as a guiding principle of artistic creation reached its peak with the art of Vincent Van Gogh, while important interpretations of it were made by Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko, Tracey Emin, and many others. Why, then, the fascination with insanity? Art, it seems, opens up a space where mental illness is deprived of its social stigma and acquires a different, often symbolic meaning. To this day, art shows itself as a place where different views on mental illness are formed, allowing the possibility for other, positive interpretations1.

While photographing his stories and speaking to his subjects, Chang often writes down the tales full of vivid personal details, moving observations and rich descriptions. Thus, interpreting the stories that happened in Hawler would be unnecessary in this text. After all, the lives of people in the cells of Hawler can only be narrated by someone who, due to their curiosity and compassion, spent hours behind the grey, filthy walls with the patients. The meaning of his photographs spans somewhere between documentation and artistic depiction. From the viewpoint of documentary photography, images are an important testament to the injustice and cruelty of psychiatric hospitals, degradation and simultaneous warmth that the photographer found in Erbil. And yet they also reach deeper, to an exploration of a certain universal human experience. In the end, they pose the obvious question – what is “normal” and what is not, how do we draw the line between deviation and sanity, and what is the true meaning of the walls which keep them apart? Chang’s images of Hawler face us with the people we most often wish to ignore, neatly stow away and pretend they don’t exist. One could say that the true power of art lies exactly therein, to make visible what society tries to keep hidden, and present it in a way that makes us change our set perceptions. In such a manner, Simon Chang offers us a different view of the patients inside Hawler. Their experience, full of personal wounds and collective traumas, is told in a thoughtful tale which far exceeds the boundaries of the documentary.

Text: Hana Čeferin

Museum of Madness

More about artistic depictions of madness in art in: Gilman, Sander L. Seeing the Insane: A Cultural History of Madness and Art in the Western World. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1982.

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