Impatient! An exploration of our Winter 2019 exhibition
In comparison with the Brilliant Visions exhibition that preceded it, Impatient! is far more topical. To enter the world of mental health advocacy without looking at the impact that the government has had would be impossible. But of course, the world of politics is a murky one: so many people claim to know the truth about the world, but it is all too difficult to know whether to trust them. The advocates featured in Impatient! Variously identify austerity, certain political figures, the Mental Health Act, the loss of tradition and even Bethlem Hospital itself as obstacles to the causes dear to them. Since many of the perspectives presented are mutually contradictory, it would be impossible for visitors to agree with all of them.
However, this will not stand in the way of your experience of Impatient!. In spite of the range of political leanings it represents, common goals can be perceived: less forced hospitalisation, drug treatment and ECT (Electro-Convulsive Therapy), and more talking therapies, listening and understanding. But there is another commonality to be found among the campaigns the exhibition highlights: humour. Juxtaposed with Rachel Rowan Olive's bluntly indignant ‘Austeritea is / Benzo and Jerry's’, the artist's reflections of a night of ice cream, medicine, and laughter. At the bottom of each Survivors' newsletter, which reports on the legal developments in mental healthcare and the ways in which the government has stood in the way, is a Melvin Menz cartoon, which follows the trickster and his neighbours in a mental hospital. As well as brash criticism of the mental health system and the futility of her treatment, Dolly Sen's DSM 69 is loaded with cynically humorous cartoons about life as a service user, because Sen's ultimate philosophy is that 'reality is a cheeky bastard, and I am putting him over my lap and slapping his naughty arse through my art, but I have hugs for everyone else.'
Bethlem Museum is full of artworks that service users have used to express themselves, such as lamenting their treatments' ineffectuality (think of Charlotte Johnson-Wahl's It Has Not Worked) or celebrating recovery (Stephanie Bates' Slaying The What If Dragon). They do so in a variety of different media, from painting to sculpture to poetry, and comedy should not be forgotten. Some, such as the Melvin Menz strips, derive humour from the absurdity of life on the ward, such as the gag about Melvin getting out of his diagnostic interview by sending a portrait of himself he made in art therapy in his place. Other more satirical jokes lampoon how out of touch with its clients the mental health system can be. In DSM 69, Dolly Sen imagines Christmas elves being profiled by clinicians who think they are working for 'Satan', gags that have gone missing as a result of being sectioned under Mental Health Act, and the secret to making a mental health professional feel awkward in two words - 'Hug Me'.
Curiously, but perhaps refreshingly, several of these jokes employ - and reclaim - stereotypes that have been used in relation to mental health service users. For example, even though violence is a stereotype negatively associated with the mentally ill, it is still used in the character of Zelda Skull, one of Melvin Menz's friends and neighbours, who transforms an ECT trolley into a TNT trolley in a bid for freedom, and traps a visiting lecturer on the history of psychiatry in a Hannibal Lector-style restraint to give him a taste of that dark history. Activists wear words like 'mad' and 'loonie' on their sleeves. Dolly Sen's DSM 69 features mental patients who believe they are Jesus celebrating each other's birthdays on Christmas Day, a straitjacket placed next to a rainbow-coloured 'gay jacket' and a reminder not to demand the voices in your head be included in the minutes at meetings. These jokes can be understood as constructive responses to dire situation, a way of seeing things from a different angle, and laughing at them.
For the activists of Impatient!, the joke is an important weapon in their arsenal. Jokes can expose the system for what it is. They can act as a glue to bind people with common experiences together. They can use it as a coping mechanism to transform the way they look at their circumstances, and to prove that no matter where you are in life, you can still take a step back, and laugh.
By Sophia Gal and Colin Gale