Bedlam: The Asylum And Beyond, The Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London NW1 2BE

Mr X makes cars. Not out of metal, plastic and rubber as you might expect, but cardboard, tin foil and tape. Nevertheless they are fully-functioning and he drives them round the pavements and countryside of Beckenham where he lives at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, once more famously known as Bedlam.

The video of Mr X negotiating the pavements and fields of Beckenham in his vehicles, while pedestrians don't turn a hair is just one of 150 pieces of patient art chosen from the hospital's vast collection. At once tender and affectionate, it is also one of the most compelling and engaging.

This illuminating exhibition on the asylum and its role in treating mental illness takes the history of the Bethlem Hospital as its structure and looks, not only at British mental health care, but also European and north American. It focusses on institutions as well as care in the community, most notably at Geel in Belgium where in the middles ages sufferers of mental illness were cared for in local families. It's a practice which continues today.

The Bethlem Hospital or Bedlam as it has gone down in history, is perhaps the oldest institution of its kind in the world. It was founded in the thirteenth century in the City of London and occupied sites at London Wall and Moorfields before moving in the 1800s to a new building in St George's Fields Southwark. In the 1930s it moved again to its present site at Beckenham and the building in Southwark is now the Imperial War Museum.

This exhibition goes beyond the fear and horror often associated with asylums and mental illness to look at the work done to help the patients. You won't find stories here of gawping sight-seers come to look at the lunaticks, rather an examination of the differing treatments, asylum versus community care, drugs versus occupational therapies and the on-going debate that surrounds them.

Below: Richard Dadd painting

But if that makes it sound rather dry, it's not. Patients' ideas dominate, there's James Tilly Matthews architectural plans the new asylum at Southwark, the first by a patient, art by the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, James Hadfield and Richard Dadd and a chess board by the artist Javier Tellez commissioned by Schering Laboratories in 2015 to promote psychotropic drugs. In this the pawns are eggs to illustrate the fragility of the human mind and each of the other pieces features a different mental condition for example, anxiety or depression. The Queen is biting her fist, the king rests his head on his arms on drawn up knees. It is at once compelling and disturbing.

The final piece in the exhibition is Madlove: A Designer Asylum a special commission of The Vacuum Cleaner

and Hannah Hull. It's a collaboration between the designers, an illustrator and over 300 people with experience of mental distress in which they imagine 'a safe place to go mad'. It is utopia, but I can't help hoping that one day it could be a reality.

​Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond runs at the Wellcome Collection until 15 January 2017. A parallel exhibition Reclaiming Asylum is at the Bethlem Gallery until 11 November 2016.

The Mask, Vaslav Nijinisky

#Bedlam #WellcomeCollection #Asylum #Bethlem #Madlove #girlabouttown

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