Friday, 22 August 2014

Asylum archives of Picauville psychiatric hospital. Polly Mortimer

A visit to Paris for the day bore fruit in an intriguing exhibition at La Maison Rouge near Gare du Lyon. Called L’Asile des Photographies it was crafted out of asylum archives of Picauville psychiatric hospital, 40k from Cherbourg. The institution, about to be demolished, wanted to preserve a record of the hospital and this exhibition did it proud. It lacked the strange spin of sentimentality that often attaches to these kinds of exhibitions, and – apart from a predictable installation of twisted iron hospital beds – gave us an unmediated and normal look at the people who lived in the asylum in the ‘40s and after.

Scattered around were postcards of the buildings and photos taken by Canadian soldiers after D-Day and before it was bombed – empty kitchens and sides of meat.

There are photos taken in the late ‘30s that we, through early 21st century eyes, know were taken before the horror of WW2; the nuns are singing and walking in ignorance as they celebrate their bicentenary; they put on a pageantry play telling the story of their charitable institution founded 200 years earlier ‘to care for the disturbed, the deranged’.

There were lists of words in glass cases - serieusement, concasser, meticuleusement, oncteux (serious, grind, meticulous, smooth) – and sad bits of ephemera and medical notes, including one letter from a family begging for their mother’s return, ECT read-outs, drug sheets and photos of ordinary people looking ordinary. Around the walls are films: the patients on outings to the sand dunes, putting on plays, holding fetes and larking around with eggs and spoons in their mouths, masked for a party, on the beach, trousers rolled, and then the eternal loafing around in the courtyard, waiting. This was a little pearl of a show and I’m very glad that I made the effort to go.

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