Artworks in a straitjacket

An exhibition has been locked behind asylum doors for a year. Mad, says John Windsor

IT MAY sound insane, but an exhibition of cutting-edge conceptual art that cost pounds 8,000 in grants has been concealed from the public behind locked doors for over a year. Entry is by invitation only.

It is in the disused buildings of the West Cheshire Hospital in Chester which, until 10 years ago, were part of a long-stay mental hospital - one of the Victorian "bins".

The Arts Council, the North West Arts Board and the local authority funded the exhibition, titled "All in the Mind". But the hospital's governing body, having enthusiastically supported the project, decided not to allow the public in for "health and safety" reasons.

The show, mounted by the three artists of Core, a visual arts group that specialises in non-gallery settings, will be dismantled on Thursday and shown at the Turnpike Gallery, Leigh, Lancashire, from 7 November to 19 December.

I was given a tour of the exhibition, in its original setting, by Core's founder, Patricia MacKinnon-Day. Inside the high-ceilinged brick building, the first artefact I clapped eyes on, on the floor of a corridor of isolation cells that had housed violent patients, was a dog-eared cardboard notice, "Do not disturb". A conceptual artwork? Hard to tell. I shuddered and walked on.

Most of the exhibits in this forlorn, echoing space, are unmistakably the work of artists. MacKinnon-Day's iron hospital bed, with a coverlet woven from wire wool, is warm and cosy-looking from a distance, but a reminder, close-up, of the hell that stalked some patients even in their beds. She has made a wire-wool straitjacket, too. Leo FitzMaurice's Isolator, an isolation cell with every surface, including a chair, painted in broad yellow and black stripes, shouts a mute but hysterical warning of danger.

But what really makes the visitor break sweat is the mental confusion that besets him when confronted by artefacts that straddle the nightmarish borderline between sanity and insanity - or, rather, between sanity and the lateral thinking of conceptual artists, society's self-chosen loonies.

There are bars of white soap with "Her Royal Highness" embossed on them - an invitation to delusions. No, they are not artworks, either. They were actually handed out to patients. Viewed as found objects, in the context of a loony bin, they have a melancholy power.

The most successful of the artworks exploit this same fine line. On the floor of one of the cells, Leo Fitzmaurice has laid out, with obsessive neatness, a row of a dozen identical children's "Peter and Jane" reading books, all open at the same page. Jane is saying: "Let us play at schools." Peter says: "I can read DANGER." Jane says: "Yes, it is DANGER" - and there she is, writing "DANGER" in huge chalk letters on the blackboard. At the foot of the page, as if for want of emphasis, is printed "New words - read DANGER". One cannot help thinking that the adults who published this book for kids needed their heads examining.

Fitzmaurice plays on the notion of the patients' childlike dependence on the institution and its staff by making deliberately confusing collages of words and pictures cut from children's books, displaying them behind the glass of the fire alarms. One says, "Made from glass - chair, blanket, comb", and is accompanied by innocent-looking pictures of the objects. Do doctors or artists ever lie?

In its day, according to its official history, the hospital had a reputation as a jolly, chivvying holiday camp. There were picnics, dances and plays. But, with an archaeologist's intent, Simon Robertshaw, one of the artist trio, has stripped the respectable plywood veneer from the cell doors, exposing the original wood with its spyholes and dents and cracks left by forcibly restrained patients who slammed their bodies against it. He has taken the doors off their hinges and re-assembled them to form an enclosure which, viewed through the spyholes, contains nothing but darkness.

MacKinnon-Day's Shut Up is a cell doorway neatly bricked up with patients' record books arranged aesthetically according to colour. The books were found abandoned in a ceiling-high heap, the last traces of tragic, forgotten lives.

In one of the notebooks, from the Sixties, in faded ink: "Noisy night with self-inflicted blows to the face. Given Trichloryl syrup with good effect." In another: "Remains withdrawn and has to be prompted at mealtimes".

The abundance of paradox that the hospital context creates is surely beyond the artists' expectations. The wallpaper - floral patterns and urns imprisoned in cartouches - is enough to drive you mad. It is art of a sort. So are the crude patterns of square linoleum floor tiles - a half-hearted attempt to enliven a bare corridor. And now, the exhibition is sharing the fate of the patients themselves, having been put out of sight and out of mind by the authorities.

Among the personal effects left behind in the hospital - including hymnals, hair brushes, plimsolls, a handbag containing green plastic earrings - is an oval wooden plaque with applique flowers and the words: "Good luck in your new home." One cannot help wondering why it was left behind.

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