Monday, November 7, 2016

Photographic production in Salpetriere and sanatoriums

Intro: Automaton 

There is a construction of what a mental illness is, a rationality of how to describe the illness, and a way of recognizing it in others. This construction continues to develop in the iterations of the DSMV. Generally, mental illness is a narrative of symptoms as actions as basis as a perception of flawed relationships with other originating in the patient subject. Women in mental asylums in the 19th century were described as mentally ill using automatism. Automatism was directed towards women in asylums as part of a larger social construction of both the role of mental illness in society and the roles of women in society; automatism was regulatory. The meaning of automatism allowed for normative standards of masculine observation to bring the female objects into both a descriptive codification and an ideal of self-regulating motion. The development of the medical portrait at Holloway Sanatorium in 1885, using photography to diagnose mental illness demonstrates how men utilized automatism as part of a particular epistemology and method to correct ways of knowing. The mechanical process of the imaging and image evaluation by doctors created an addition mimetic response to the imagery produced by a mimetic device for diagnosis.


This construction of mental illness limited agency; proportional reaction to abuse and resistance to institutional subjugation was described as irrational and pathological by male abusers and female handmaidens. More so, the actions taken were described as both innate and automatic. Women, trapped in the sanatorium, asylum, and hospital, were subjected to treatments that created the patterns of behavior fitting the pathologies ascribed during admission. The photos of women under duress pantomiming respectability in medical portraits mirror the noble paintings of women exemplifying a constructed hysteria for the consumption of medical elite and the public. "Un Lecon Clinique a la Salpetriere" (1887) by Andre Briouillet exemplifies an early iteration of the panopticon in action of displaying while producing the woman suffering automatism.


Some current art production pushes against this construction. Anna Scheliet's work "Bloom" existed not only temporarily as an installation of 28,000 flowers in the space of a mental institution to be demolished but also after the building as the potted plants were delivered to shelters, halfway houses, and other hospitals. Displaying the austerity of the hospital, the installation drew attention to the construction of an austere space that disconnects people. Further, the redistribution of the plants was intended to treat the malaise of separation rather than an admitting illness into the institutional framework. I'd like to find other examples of women's artistic production within mental institutions and folk art on the subject.


The mental illness is constructed as a removal of the individual from rational or discursive possibilities, a construction developed in the asylum. For this removal to be maintained but the connection to the wider society maintained, the individual must be captured in another format of description that cannot be questioned: the automaton offers a speedy and habitual route to quantified description. The epistemology of what mental illness is, how to recognize it, and how to treat it, has left behind symbols in the artistic production of the 19th century.