What Kind of Borderline? -- Museum Lab of Lives in Disorder
Wearing rose-coloured glasses, people often romanticize about how mental illness influences artistic creation, with examples such as Vincent van Gogh cutting off his ear and Yayoi Kusama committing herself voluntarily into a psychiatric clinic. These stories are told with mythical reverence, as if to affirm the resilient strength that human beings possess in their endurance of great suffering. In this narrative, art becomes the sought-after sublime of human existence, but do we empathize with the actual personal experiences of those veiled behind this mythology? These representations persist throughout history, while people labeled as sufferers of mental illnesses are inevitably affected by such stories. Museum Lab of Lives in Disorder, presented in C-LAB from July 4th to August 2nd 2020, brought together residents of Easy Clubhouse (Cih-Fang) with contemporary artists to work with the collection of the National Palace Museum (NPM) as a starting point. The over six-month-long collaboration reconsidered how art and mental illness could interact to dually destigmatize mental illness sufferers as well as cease its romanticization in the arts.
The exhibition opens with artist Xu Wei of the Ming Dynasty from the NPM collection. According to historical records, Xu Wei was suspected of having mental issues. Using a newspaper format, the first section of the exhibition attempts to tell the story of Xu in a relatively objective manner: from being identified as a child prodigy, his failure in the civil examinations eight times, the criminal charge of killing his wife, to his twilight years selling paintings to sustain his impoverished life. Through detached reports, the audience can learn about the plights Xu faced, without a romanticized correlation made between his art and his life. Meanwhile, viewpoints from the residents of Easy Clubhouse are exhibited alongside the newspaper. Reading these, the residents’ desires for empathy and understanding become palpable.
The following section, ‘The Heart as Home’, exhibited replicas of works from the collection of NPM. Installed by the Easy Clubhouse residents, the display realizes their ideal presentation in an imaginary home for Xu. As a collaborative process during the six-month duration, residents wrote their interpretations of the works and their imaginations on the surface of the replicas, which included NPM’s famous porcelain piece Pillow in the shape of a recumbent child with white glaze and the Ru ware Lotus-shaped warming bowl in light bluish-green glaze. In the gallery, the audience are also invited to write down their own thoughts after reading the texts of the residents.
The exhibition continues with the collaborations between contemporary artists and the Easy Clubhouse residents. Artist Tu Wei-Cheng adopted his signature molding technique to cast objects that represent residents’ identities and memories. He prompted the residents to choose these objects by asking them two questions: “How do you want to be remembered after your death?” and “What do you hope to leave behind?” One resident chose a key, and another a comb, reflecting how personhood is entangled with possessions. Conversely, artist Yi-Lun Lu did not use his modus operandi of photography. Instead, he chose to make paintings with the residents, inviting them to paint their dream houses and furnishings. In the exhibition, these paintings were installed in a triangular space, with the participants introducing the works in their own words, which in their sincerity compensate for what they lack in professional terminology.
The collaboration between artist Yung-An Wang and the residents of Easy Clubhouse focused on the tactile perception of images. The needs for care and comfort are universal, and should not be excluded from a stigmatized person’s experience. On the other hand, sound, considered the medium that evokes memories most directly, is utilized in the work of artist Alice Hui-Sheng Chang’s work. She invited residents to recall their most impressive auditory experiences. Wen-Hsuan Chang, continuing her practice of writing, asked the participants to write love poems, which were then inscribed on multiple columns of mirrored surfaces, standing on a bright yellow carpet in the exhibition. The sensitivity revealed in these expressions can be regarded as a sign of madness, while also being the beginning of the creative process.
Some of the residents are amateur artists, creating works intuitively. Lung-Chiuan Su, an enthusiastic singer, crafted a mannequin wearing a shiny stage suit and singing without restraint. Yan-Qing Zhan exposed his desires, arranging the exhibition space as his bedroom, which included pornography magazines. He wishes the audience to understand that the residents of EasyClub House also have bodies which long for intimacy. Wan-Shan Tsai documented her cat with video over a ten-year duration, recording the warmth and companionship it has provided her throughout her daily struggles.
Interactive experience is extended further in a section of the show. The audience is able to take fragments of the residents’ personal experiences to create alternative narratives and make decisions based on the stories. Through this process, the audience is invited to think about the nature of narration, and what consequences these narrations may have. Are prejudices merely caused by different narrative perspectives? Is inaction sometimes the most harmful act?
The exhibition closes with a return to the artworks of Xu Wei. He made a living in his old age by selling paintings. The brazenness of his paintings echo the oscillations in his life. They are an inseparable part of him, and not to be glorified as the aura of a prodigy, nor as an unmentionable dark madness. Likewise, Museum Lab of Lives in Disorder is an attempt to make the voices of the residents of Easy Clubhouse heard. Taking place in a site named a cultural lab, the exhibition is a tripartite collaboration between heritage museum, mental institution and contemporary art. By mutual exploration and friction, these three different institutions working outside the original framework of their functions is effectively an experiment. In the research of scholar Tony Bennett, the idea of the ‘exhibitionary complex’ refers to museums as the display and wielding of power by the ruling class. This same function can be applied to a mental hospital, with its disciplining of a body through a collective regulatory power. If both art and mental illness can be seen as a rupturing of existing frameworks, why do people regard the latter with discrimination or indifference? Perhaps through this exhibition, the audience is able to empathize with the specific personal and embodied experiences of each individual who falls under this label. Sometimes, what we may need is an attempt to be grasped - in nuanced understanding, not stigmatized generalization - when falling out of the borderline.