Bethlem Gallery is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a new group exhibition entitled It’s how well you bounce, which explores resilience and its relationship to the imagination and artistic practice. The gallery is an art focused platform for former and current patients of the historic Royal Bethlem Hospital in Bromley, supporting artists with lived experience of mental illness to involve themselves in the positive direction of art making. ArtAttack chats with Bethlem Gallery’s curator Sam Curtis about the show’s themes, the gallery’s milestone anniversary and what the future holds.
How does the theme of resilience manifest itself in the works in the exhibition?
The theme of resilience manifests itself in the works in the exhibition in diverse ways, we see the works of artists who draw on the imagination as a positive and strategic response to life pressures, works that are born out of the artist’s ability to adapt and survive to new and often challenging circumstances, artists that resist or document resistance to social and political pressures, artists that reroute negative thoughts into something more positive through their art making, artists that map, shape and transform their identity through art making and therapy and importantly we can encounter artworks and projects that critique the notion of resilience that says we need to ‘man or woman-up’ and bounce back from adversity . It’s how well you bounce includes artworks that explore a specific aspect of resilience as well as artworks that come from artistic practice that is itself a form of resilience.
One of the works in the show is titled ‘Journey to recovery’. How important do you think the process of creating art is in terms of healing?
For some people, art making can contribute to their well-being, that could be an increase in confidence, expressing thoughts and feelings through a visual language where sometimes our words fail or developing coping mechanisms. Here at Bethlem Royal Hospital, the Occupational Therapy department provides an art studio for patients to learn new skills, rekindle old ones and develop artwork in a social and supportive environment. But the practice of art making can also make us vulnerable and can be seen as a risk-taking occupation to engage with. Artists share their thoughts and bare their souls, they invest themselves in an activity for little or no financial gain and they take risks in creating something highly subjective and open to endless re-workings. The process of art making is different for everyone and its therapeutic potential may fluctuate depending on a multitude of external and internal factors that might be bearing down on us at that time.
This is the 20th anniversary of Bethlem Gallery, which is a great milestone. How do you go about curating works to mark this momentous occasion?
Our 20th anniversary is a great milestone and we’ll be celebrating all year! Curating works for this exhibition has been led by the theme of resilience and by conversations with artists, patients, service users and clinicians around what resilience means to them and their individual set of experiences. Most of the works selected have been made within the last few years but we also work with artists to support the development of new work and to instigate collaborations. We have long-term relationships with most of our artists and tend to start conversations with them months in advance to see whether a new work could be developed and what kind of resources or things need to be in place before they consider making a new work. There have been a couple of new and exciting collaborations in this exhibition, notably Corali Dance Company with artist Jan Arden and filmmaker Hydar Dewachi who collaborated to make a new film work, a public workshop and performance in the beautiful grounds of the hospital. David Gilbert, our current writer-in-residence has instigated a collaboration with composer Rose Miranda Hall and Soprano Lila Palmer to create a public workshop and performance based on the modern fable ‘The Jewel Merchants’ by David, a narrative based critical reflection on patient or client involvement.
For this exhibition, we have also nurtured collaborations with other institutions such as Wellcome Collection, Tate and Kings College to co-produce public events that offer a platform for public discussion and debate on ideas and questions that arise from the exhibition theme. These collaborations provide us with an opportunity for knowledge and skills exchange, a space for cultural institutions to come together and think about how we practice, from our different perspectives.
The works on display are in very diverse media. In what ways do the artists surprise or challenge you?
Working with artists who mostly have not been to art school, who may describe themselves as self-taught and who have developed very individual practices, we are regularly in awe of the ingenuity and innovative practice produced that resists conformity. We are also often impressed with the fluidity of how our artists practice and turn from one way of making to another or translate ideas from one context to another when presented with a brief.
We are proud of the enthusiasm, respect and thirst the public have for the work. With a lot of repetition or limitation in wider art world, the freedom and originality that our artists present, captures the imaginations of audiences in a way that we don’t always see with traditional art audiences. It seems to us that the artists’ work brings viewers closer to the point of artistic practice, finding opportunities for authentic encounters with artwork and making, in contrast: contemporary work that is super sleek can feel obscured by the distance created through the aspiration to commercial success.
What is also surprising is how showing artwork can change a therapeutic relationship between patient and clinician, enabling the person to be understood as a whole and not just a diagnosis. The artwork opens up a channel of communication and a level of respect that can improve the therapeutic relationship. Through the gallery we can contextualize and value the artwork for other people to then value the individual in a different way and outside of the clinical framework.
How do you see the gallery evolving over the coming years?
I see our partnerships and collaborations with other organizations, galleries and institutions as being important, whether they are big or small, we are able to do things we’re unable to do alone and we can further our reach to new audiences. Over the coming years we’ll be examining research and themes around our practice as a gallery, to create a platform for thought, discussion, reflection, learning and hopefully change.
It’s how well you bounce is on view at Bethlem Gallery until 28 October.