Talking Heads reporter Heather Lune visits Staring at the Ceiling, Looking at the Stars, a collaborative exhibition of new sound recordings and printed artworks produced by inpatients and staff at Bellsdyke Hospital and Artlink Central artist Sharon Quigley.
I remember going with my mom to visit my grandfather in a psychiatric ward of a hospital when I was about twelve. All I knew was that he’d been hospitalised for depression and a short time after that he was out again. We bought a notebook and some pens on the way and my mom gave them to me to hand to him. We took him outside to a picnic table and sat and talked about simple things. I think a few months or a year later he briefly thanked me for bringing the notebook and said it really helped to write down his thoughts. And that was all.
I think how many of these experiences with mental ill-health aren’t ever spoken about. How I dealt with my own depression and mental health issues privately, politely as well. The unbridgeable gap even between family members, trying to find a way to talk about these things we experience. At my grandfather’s funeral, I remember listening to the stories of his life, from a chaotic childhood to a chaotic and sometimes troubling adulthood, and each story resonated with me and felt so familiar, I suddenly recognised my frenetic self in him. But we had never talked about any of it.
I was drawn in immediately by the idea behind Staring at the Ceiling, Looking at the Stars, an exhibition on display in the atrium of the Forth Valley Royal Hospital. The works were produced in a participatory arts project hosted by ArtLink Central, where current inpatients of the hospital explored the recently released records from the years 1906 to 1914 from the Stirling District Asylum Archive. The artist Sharon Quigley worked with the inpatients and staff to help them create prints and sound recordings, exploring these remnants of people who lived in the same institution 100 years ago.
The lives of people living in mental hospitals seem tucked away and often aren’t seen or shared by people, apart from the professionals who care for them and family members who choose to visit. When the patients are no longer alive, their own passions and struggles are put to one side and the world moves on. But, in a beautiful, poetic way, this exhibition values the creative insights and experimentations of those at Bellsdyke Hospital for their own sake. The project allowed them to investigate the spiritual heritage of the people who had lives in this place a century before them, and who experienced thoughts and feelings that they could relate to. The current inpatients are not just valuing their own creative ideas but reanimating those of these former patients, connecting their present lives to those in the past, making sure that their own struggles aren’t sealed away within a hospital as they bring life and new dimensions to those who passed on a long time ago.
As you walk through the hospital’s main doors and the large atrium, past the reception and shops, visiting families and staff getting coffee, there is a pair of headphones on one wall. The recordings are at first a recitation in different voices of all the professions the patients had had before being admitted, as identified in the records. Behind the voices are the rhythms of the occupation, atmospheric chimings and clangs, sounds of work, steam – then a voice that announces startlingly: ‘Stirling District Lunatic Asylum’.
Hearing these sounds together created an amazing connection with the current patients to the patients of the past, and those patients’ own connections to the work and culture of the community, as well as their time in history. The rhythms and sounds from farms and with machinery demonstrated how connected to the land these patients were throughout their lives. Gradually, the voices shifted to reading a landscape survey from the archive, produced for the land the hospital was built on, and alongside the descriptions of trees on the estate were field recordings of the woods around the hospital. The building is bound to the land the hospital is on, to nature, and the recording highlights the interaction that the people in this hospital have with it.
The exhibition smacks of a discovery of a shared heritage or collective culture, in the moments of familiarity with the voices reading these old notes and the people contained in the records coming alive in surprising vitality every now and then. One voice read a very negative description of a crab apple tree from the survey, and on reading out ‘poo-oor scumpy tree’ breaks into laughter at the ridiculous moment of pathos in this scientific survey recorded in a few lines in some very old notes.
On the pillars in the atrium hang prints of abstract drawings made in response to exploring the land the hospital sits on and the trees around it. A series of prints on the walls experimentally collects different remnants from the archive, one print amasses the varied professions like constellations, while another collages fragments of letters from different patients discovered in the records.
It’s incredibly imaginative to be able connect the land and the natural world to industry, and these near-forgotten mental health archives with life outside the hospitial and the community these patients came from – and then link all of this to the current patients at Bellsdyke. In the end, these artists have created powerful works expressing why we belong to them and them to us. As the exhibition sits on these walls, connecting each passing person with everything that has gone on in the past, each work invites them to see a portion of a world they would never otherwise have had the chance to glimpse.
Written by Heather Lune
Staring at the Ceiling, Looking at the Stars is on display at the Forth Valley Royal Hospital until Fri 1 Jan 2016, when it will be moved to the University of Stirling until May.