Stumbling blindly through 29,000 square feet of underground tunnels, coming upon a giant blinking eye suspended overhead and then being spun senseless in a soft hanging swing (and all the while being driven to distraction by the offensive whirring of a vacuum cleaner) is the stuff of nightmares. But “the world gone mad” effect is exactly the intention of the exhibition Bedlam, the Lazarides Gallery’s third and final collaboration with the Old Vic Tunnels, which opens today.
The dank, dripping railway vaults don’t need window dressing to become creepy. But blanketed in darkness, with light-infused installations leading you into winding corners, it is both disorientating and exciting. Following on from Hell’s Half Acre in 2010 and Minotaur last year - timed once more to coincide with Frieze- this is an exhibition of “outsider art” at its slickest.
Abandoning the religious and mythological themes of previous shows, Bedlam examines humanity at its very worst. The term “outsider art” has been applied in the past to inmates of insane asylums and is characterised by representing extreme emotional states. So it is prescient that Steve Lazarides commissioned artists to make work in response to London’s Bethlem Hospital for the clinically insane which came to epitomise the brutality of historic mental institutions.
“Everyone in the art world is crazy anyway,” Lazarides said. “But different artists took different things from the idea. For some it became about chaos. For others it was more medical.”
Tobias Klein’s angel made from ammonium sulphate crystals has been growing in the tunnels for 10 days. Its starting off point was that in Bedlam inmates would have crystals placed beneath the skin as form of treatment. The spinning swing was another means of shaking the mentally ill back to their senses. But it is the sculptures that are quite simply mad that work the best. Tessa Farmer’s cloud of space dust made up of zombie rats, skeleton fairies and spaceships made from animal skulls and insects’ wings is captivating but totally inexplicable. And Tina Tsang's sculptures like Catholic idols with television screens in their faces are Teletubbies meets Doctor Who.
For the first time the collaboration between Lazarides and the Old Vic has a commercial sponsor: HTC phones. While the HTC branding is minimal, and despite bringing the unarguable advantage of making the exhibition free again (it cost £5 entry last year), there are a few subliminal bits of HTC marketing that don’t sit that well. Artists Anonymous’ piece in which videos of asylum inmates are broadcast on surveillance televisions flashes up an ironic HTC logo every couple of frames.
Until 21 October, lazaridesbedlam.com