Art review: Mark Dion | Claire Barclay

Two fine exhibitions provide a fitting climax to a vivid and clever year-long programme to mark the Royal Hospital’s 200th anniversary, finds Moira Jeffrey

Claire Barclay's exhibition at the Talbot Rice gallery. Picture: Submitted
Claire Barclay's exhibition at the Talbot Rice gallery. Picture: Submitted


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Both Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

I find it hard to think of a more evocative object than the little hatpin used in a suicide attempt by “Mrs B” in Edinburgh in 1883. “Found thrust perpendicular into the chest wall at the left side,” according to a dispassionate handwritten letter which forms the report of the incident, “… it was embedded to within a quarter inch of its head.”

Both the utter futility of the attempt and the totality of the system that recorded it are striking. And the century-old echo of a life so dreadfully out of kilter that a mere pin offered hope of escape.

The pin is part of Ever/Present/Past, a year-long programme to mark the 200-year anniversary of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital which has culminated in two exhibitions, by American artist Mark Dion and Scot Claire Barclay, at the Talbot Rice Gallery and a new publication by novelist Nicola White.

If it seems strange to mark such an occasion via the arts rather than through more conventional forms of self-congratulation or publicity, then it is worth remembering that it was the arts that were fundamental in the founding of the psychiatric hospital. When the poet, Robert Fergusson, died in wretched circumstances in Edinburgh’s Bedlam at the age of 24, his friend, the doctor Andrew Duncan, resolved to found a more humane institution. He bought the villa and grounds of Morningside in 1806 and in 1813 the Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum was opened for “patients of the middle and higher ranks.” These days the Royal Edinburgh is a modern hospital with a campus-style (or to be frank slightly ramshackle) collection of buildings. Its historic site, including the A-listed Craig House and grounds, until recently formed part of Napier University and is controversially being redeveloped as housing.

Dion is the artist who marked the opening of the Tate Modern with his Tate Dig, an excavation on the banks of the Thames. He is a global figure best known for his work with scientific objects and collections, but he does have Scottish connections having worked with Dundee Contemporary Arts and shown at Glasgow’s CCA. He endows the project not with stardust, but with sensitivity and a touch of mischief. His artwork is not a single outcome, but a long cabinet of curiosities entitled 200 Years, 200 objects, stretched across a single wall of the gallery.

The premise is simple: for each year of the hospital’s life an object has been chosen. But the results are rich and playful. There are obvious portraits and certificates, commemorative plates and confidential files on the most famous patients of the adjacent Craiglockhart War Hospital, namely Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But the objects are recreated from oral accounts as much as drawn from existing collections and evoke the rich and strange texture of institutional life.

What to make of a vintage photograph from 1941 of unusual potatoes dug up from the hospital kitchen garden? “They form an amazingly lifelike flight of aeroplanes; as Mr Swan has suggested, like six fighters escorting a bomber.” There is the notice from 1874 that “any person leaving this door open will be fined sixpence,” and an old newspaper repurposed as toilet roll during postwar austerity.

There are red herrings too: objects that are designed to contextualise the hospital in the wider story of psychiatry. A cigar that symbolises Sigmund Freud, the icepick that tells of new styles of lobotomy (though no such tool is recorded as used in the Royal Edinburgh’s History). The work is funny, subversive and like that modest hatpin, often devastating.

Curators Alison Stirling from Artlink and Trevor Cromie have been very clever in the construction of the project overall. Nicola White’s book weaves a modern fictional narrative through the historical context. Similarly Sterling and Cromie have avoided placing the Royal Edinburgh in a neat historical box.

Artlink is a charity that brings artists into healthcare settings including the Royal Edinburgh and the Glasgow sculptor, Claire Barclay, is among them. In the fantastic surroundings of the Georgian Gallery, Barclay brings her own art together with contributions from Malcolm Thomson, Gary Burden and Dianna Manson, three former patients of the hospital.

You don’t need to have spent much time at the hospital to recognise the visual language: the sculptural installation echoes the warmth of its paneled interiors as well as the cold and cage-like construction of metal hospital beds. Barclay spent months looking through archives and talking to and working with her collaborators to create a precarious but very beautiful art work that is aptly entitled Another Kind of Balance.

Paintings have been transformed into printed textiles, tiny wrapped and bound sculptures are balanced delicately amongst more robust sculptural and machine made elements designed by the artist. It is formally very beautiful, but the deep complexity of what it might mean for psychiatric patients or former patients to be involved in contemporary art or craft was lost on me until, in the catalogue for Dion’s project, I stumbled upon Dianna Manson’s own account of the Royal Edinburgh.

First admitted in the 1960s, Manson recalls a medication regime that “literally felled me”. For three hours each day she attended compulsory occupational therapy. “Because of the drugs, you had double vision and very little dexterity. And very frightened because it was the initial stages of a psychosis. This basket would arrive, and I learned to loathe it. I couldn’t do it and I felt grossly insulted, having come from medical school, to think that this was now my objective in life.”

That five decades later Barclay has worked with Manson and others as collaborators and that art has flourished at the Royal Edinburgh is testament to the ongoing work of Artlink among others. Ever/Present/Past is a vivid and clever new version of an incredible history.

Until 15 February