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.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week