Mad World: On Sane People in Insane Situations

asylumI wasn’t sure what to expect from the Mad World exhibition from its online write-up, and once I got there I understood why. Part exploration of the history of mental illness, part art exhibition, part awareness-raising debate on how we talk about mental health, Mad World provides a real assortment of material to enable its audience to “discover the insane”.

St Margaret’s House is a huge, sprawling gallery and studio space set in a former NHS office block (which did work well with the subject matter of this particular exhibition). As I arrived, I heard applause from an event in an unseen ground floor gallery. I passed several people on my cautious way upstairs, keen to find whoever it was whose voice had spoken to me through the intercom, but plagued by a worrying feeling I would end up somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be.

Gallery 1 is the biggest exhibition space belonging to Edinburgh Palette, a community arts hub based in St Margaret’s House, and the large open space invites you to take in the exhibition at your leisure. Duct tape arrows point to blocks of text (mostly excerpts from books or articles on psychiatry and mental illness), but there is no pre-determined route around the work.

The exhibition draws its main inspiration from Rosenhan and Seligman’s 1973 study On Being Sane in Insane Places, where researchers admitted themselves to psychiatric wards in an attempt to show whether psychiatrists could reliably tell the difference between genuine and pseudo-patients. The exhibition also focuses on a logic puzzle devised by Raymond Smullyan, and invites the audience to judge for themselves whether the contributing artists are mad or sane.

I wasn’t sure how to interact with this challenge, as I felt it wasn’t my place to actively contemplate the mental health of the artists whose work I was looking at. That being said, it does relate to the exploration of Rosenhan and Seligman, which unfolds throughout the exhibition. The researchers question the extent to which perceived sanity is purely about the person being observed, and suggest that context, environment and expectation clearly play a role in deciding who is sane and insane. Taking the art by itself will never be enough to draw conclusions about the artist.

Several organisations have been involved in developing the exhibition, with contributions from the Edinburgh Settlement Project, CAPS Advocacy and Upward Mobility. The collaboration was brought together by free education project Ragged University, and also includes installations from creative support hub Place + Platform, and a retrospective collection of Asylum magazine.

With such a variety of communities involved in the project, the exhibition has a lot to offer. The set-up invites you to interact with the material as much or as little as you please. There are areas to sit within the gallery, and tables full of reading material: flyers, information leaflets and books (several of which had their excerpts featured within the exhibition).

The material works to prompt further thought and discussion about mental illness. It touches on a lot of topics – not only the question of how we identify mental illness, but also issues of how mental illness affects different community groups, and how our definition of what constitutes mental illness has changed over time. There’s an intriguing statement about how today’s diagnosis of mental illness compares to historical accusations of witchcraft, raising the matter of how behaviour previously deemed spiritually problematic has become medicalised. The project also tackles more recent history, reminding us of the dark and very recent history of viewing homosexuality as a mental illness that could be cured.

The exhibition raises far more questions than it answers and there is a sense that the wide range of topics (which could fill whole exhibitions by themselves) are only ever briefly touched on. After a good hour in the gallery, I still felt like I could have spent more time there, if only to sit and watch more of the film footage playing in a side room off the main exhibition space. I came away with a fistful of leaflets and far more questions than I had had going in.

It’s tempting to say that I would have preferred a more focused exhibition, as a single clear message might have been more accessible than several slightly less well-defined ones, but Mad World manages to combine its wide-ranging perspectives effectively. And this lack of definition in itself perhaps reflects the complexity of the issue. The exhibition calls the audience to interact with the often not-heard viewpoint of individuals with lived experience of mental illness. It’s a truly collaborative exercise, which brings together diverse voices from the local community to talk about mental illness.

The Mad World exhibition runs until June 21st at Edinburgh Palette, Gallery 1, St Margaret’s House

Laura Tomlinson