Memorializing a hospital is no simple feat, and yet the most simple and elegant concepts are the most powerful. A perfect example is “Bloom.” Commissioned in 2003 for the closure of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, artist Anna Schuleit filled the hospital with 28,000 potted flowers, creating carpets of African violets and daisies in hallways, waiting rooms, and annexes.
The artist explains:
“After four public days of ‘Bloom’, the building was closed for good and we delivered all twenty-eight thousand flowers to shelters, half-way houses, and psychiatric hospitals throughout New England—which is why I didn’t want to work with cut flowers. I wanted these flowers to continue onward, after the installation. ‘Bloom’ was a reflection on the healing symbolism of flowers given to the sick when they are bedridden and confined to hospital settings. As a visiting artist I had observed an astonishing absence of flowers in psychiatric settings. Here, patients receive few, if any, flowers during their stay. ‘Bloom’ was created to address this absence, in the spirit of offering and transition.”
The article also shares some of the guestbook reactions to the exhibit:
“I walked through Bloom with a close friend of mine who has spent a great deal of time inside similar hospitals. He was close to tears and repeatedly said he felt the desire to jump into the flowers for the freedom and the celebration of his own growth and healing. We recognized that Bloom brought beauty and wonder to what has always been an inherently taboo subject matter.”
Anna Schuleit received a MacArthur grant in 2006 for her art. She had worked as an artist-in-residence at a psychiatric hospital, and created an earlier artwork for the closing of another, the Northampton State Hospital, in 2000. In “Habeus Corpus,” Schuleit played Bach’s “Magnificat” through speakers from the windows of the building, to a crowd below.
“Alternately triumphal and meditative, the music captured the moods of optimism and despair that are interwoven in the history of the building and of the movement to provide compassionate treatment to the mentally ill… Anna Schuleit made it possible for the stories of that institution to be told and heard. She taught the stones of Northampton to sing, and I suspect that the music will continue to echo through the land long after it has ended.” – The Massachusetts Psychologist
Another artist who worked with the ghosts of a psychiatric hospital, in art that’s no less powerful but more sombre than Schuleit’s, is David Maisel. With the discovery of 3500 cans containing the unidentified cremated remains of former residents of the Oregon State Hospital, Maisel set out to create a beautiful tribute. Each copper can, uniquely oxidized and corroded, was photographed and documented for the “Library of Dust” project.
“Among my concerns with Library of Dust are the crises of representation that derive from attempts to index or archive the evidence of trauma; the uncanny ability of objects to portray such trauma; and the revelatory possibilities inherent in images of such traumatic disturbances. While there are certainly physical and chemical explanations for the ways these canisters have transformed over time, the canisters also encourage us to consider what happens to our own bodies when we die, and to the souls that occupy them.”
“Library of Dust” also features an excellent web component, with the photos catalogued in an easy to browse database online.
With deinstitutionalization, many psychiatric hospitals and former asylums have been closed but some remain and are scheduled to close. Although their histories may be filled with pain and struggle, hopefully art will memorialize the closures in dignified ways, inspired by brilliant works such as these.
[Creative Commons image above by biggertree.]