A new exhibition exploring connections between photography and history of mental health is to open to the public in Edinburgh.
‘Deliria – The Insanity of Physiognomy’ by Abigail Smith opens 10 June 2017 at Whitespace, Edinburgh.
Extensive research into the historical use of photography and language in psychiatric care has lead Abigail Smith to create artworks that consider the relationship between text and the photographic image.
Abigail’s work is also informed by the personal experience of living with anxiety and an ongoing interest in the diagnosis of mental illness.
To create the works in this exhibition, Abigail has drawn upon information gathered from the Royal Edinburgh Asylum in Morningside archives; in particular, casebooks from the female unit dating between 1830-1897. Physiognomy, ‘a science based on the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance, especially the face’, was a new and influential trend in Victorian psychiatric care at this time.
Speaking about the project, artist Abigail Smith said:
“When researching the Edinburgh Asylum archive, in the midst of a vast amount of handwritten information, with a tiny photograph of each patient, it was a small section of the casebooks entitled ‘Appearance’ which caught my eye.
“At the time these records were created many doctors believed a photograph could uncover a link between a patient’s “disturbed” mind and their physical appearance.
“This made me question why photography was used as a tool for diagnosis? How can the way people look in a photograph determine mental health and what did doctors look for as signs of madness or insanity?
“The language used in the patient notes was harsh and contradictory to the photographs shown, these words made me consider the relationship between the text and the photographs. There was an interesting link to the Victorian fascination of Physiognomy and the idea that a patient’s appearance could reveal the state of their mind.
“The records of the female patients were of particular interest to me. Historically, women suspected of suffering from mental illness were treated dreadfully. As females were seen as more fragile than men, anything from infidelity to laziness could be considered as mental illness and a reason to be committed to the Asylum.
“For most of my life, I’ve dealt with stress and anxiety, from a very early age mental health was something that I had to live with. The Royal Edinburgh records intrigued me and compelled me to explore the history of mental illness in my art. This exhibition is the very beginning of what will be a much larger project focusing on these issues.”
Rather than using the patient photographs used to make the diagnosis, Abigail has focused on the language used in the examination of these patients. By responding to the words found in these casebooks, she has created artworks that question and explore the effect of language.
Currently based in Edinburgh, Abigail is a graduate from the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Edinburgh’s MA in Contemporary Art Practice and has exhibited throughout the UK.
Notes for Editors
Abigail Smith is an artist interested in how words can affect the way in which we visualise things. She concentrates on visual documentation of language and alternates between drawing, film and alternative photography techniques. For more information on the artist see: https://www.abigailsgsmith.co.uk
The Royal Edinburgh Hospital based in Morningside has a long history of caring for those with mental health problems. Originally called the Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum, the hospital opened in 1813. In 1922, the asylum was renamed the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders.