While the eyes are a window to the soul, art is a prism of light refracting and reflecting our worlds back upon us: illuminating the intangible, illogical, emotional, surreal depths of our conscious and unconscious spheres. As the recurrence in the use of entheogens takes us further into the abyss of the human condition; psychosis, mood disorders and other forms of malignment have often been associated with the arts, whilst creativity synonymously serves as a therapeutic remedy for our anthropoid ailments.
Mind Meaning And Matter
‘Madness’ is a very slippery term, and its meaning absolutely changes across time and changes in cultural, historical and medical contexts. – Dr Anna Jamieson, Doctoral Researcher in History of Art, Birkbeck
The Oxford English Dictionary defines madness as ‘insanity, mental illness or impairment’… However these words have their origins in a time when madness wasn’t necessarily seen as an illness or medical condition linked to the brain.
Before we began to investigate some of the associations between brain changes and changes in experience, mental health in the eighteenth century perceived spiritual forces at play. For better or for worse, madness was associated with the intangible and ineffable, and even attributed to moral or divine punishment, witchcraft and possession – warranting exorcism.
These origins present some insight into why many mental health issues still face so much stigma today. In order to give us an empathetic glimpse into such mental states, art has represented madness through a number of masks and mediums.
One of the best known early examples is Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I. The image shows a forlorn winged figure functioning as an allegory for melancholy. She is surrounded by a wealth of tools and objects associated with creation and the arts. Melancholy was seen as a form of madness and was associated with solitude and emotionality.
Almost as a collective or cultural psychosis, art historians have described a cult of melancholia which arose throughout Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Around this time, Bethlem – also known as Bedlam, was London’s most famous psychiatric hospital, inspiring films, books and paintings.
It was also open to visitors, and in exchange for a few coins people could go inside and ‘view the mad within’. The hospital would come to be home to some notable artists including Richard Dadd and Louis Wain, who is now known for his psychedelic drawings of cats.
Prior to having the name ‘art therapy’, art was used as part of the ‘moral treatment’ approach to psychiatric care – ironic, during a time when it was considered morally sound to capitalise on patients being paraded in front of the general public.
In this sense, the term ‘madness’ can be a problematic one in that it reinforces, rather than alleviates certain stigmas and stereotypes. This can also be associated with gender and class, as well as what defines ‘normal’ ways to behave. However it does give some insights into the way mental states of mind and illness may have been imagined amidst broader cultural meanings and changing attitudes.
From The Medi-Evil To The Modern
“In our lives, sometimes we will cross a calm sea and sometimes we encounter storms. Dark memories are part of us. We have to accept that and continue to move forward”. – The Maiden Voyage by Korean Artist, Jeeyoung Lee
Held up beside the great and ever-extending history of the world, the depth of conscious human memory is a humble thing. The world is said to be over 4.5 billion years old, but we can’t fathom much beyond the time covered by three generations in front or behind us.
As adults, our earliest individual memories start around two and a half. Like archaeological scraps, early recollections are open to interpretation: they seldom offer a full story. Instead, we grab at a cloud of sensations: feelings, qualities of light and a sense of place.
Ambassadors from the far reaches of Earth’s history still live among us. One is the Ginkgo Biloba, an ancient tree species considered a ‘living fossil’ by botanists. The lone surviving member of what was once a great family, a linking point between conifers and ferns, close relatives of the modern Ginkgo have lived on earth for over 200 million years. Although they outlived the dinosaurs, they may not outlive us. Bright autumn foliage has made the Ginkgo a popular ornamental tree for city streets and gardens, but wild populations are dying out.
In Jeeyoung Lee’s Maiden Voyage, a giant paper boat floats on a sea of golden Ginkgo leaves, spectacular heralds of autumn made large as paper fans. These leaves played a role in the every day magic of Lee’s memory, transforming familiar neighbourhoods in South Korea into yellow roads worthy of Oz.
For Lee, the falling leaves punctuated the year, marking the passage of time. The Ginkgo is thus emblematic of both individual human memory, and the unfathomably deeper memory of our transforming planet, and its collective unconscious.
Lee first created a version of Maiden Voyage in 2009 for Stage Of Mind: a series of ephemeral installations constructed for her camera alone. Within her white-walled studio, the artist constructed fantastical landscapes, dream spaces and scenes worthy of fairy tales.
Some of these were picturesque and heavenly: a lily pond seen from a frog’s eye view; a green bed surrounded by pink blooms and butterflies; a field of giant dandelion clocks. Others looked closer to nightmare: closing walls covered in thorns; a dripping, poison-toned roomed crawling in cockroaches; a party table beset by white rats.
On completing each installation, Lee positioned herself within it as a character, suggesting an unfolding narrative. Working with simple materials – often coloured paper – Lee summons the elements from dreams and memories and gives them a three-dimensional form. This is a landscape of her senses, these serene settings are not places that have existed in the physical world, but they represent the emotionally real.
Constricted by the boundaries inherent to conventional photography, she adds the fabric of the fabricated alongside theatrical performance to these worlds, with the intent of lending life to a universe that up until this moment had only existed before her two eyes – and then exorcises it.
After photographing herself, the artist dismantles the set, and transforms her studio back into a blank space. Inherently imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, the long physical process of set building then begins again.