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New art exhibition explores how fragile our lives can be

WHILE researching the science behind schizophrenia, artist Susan Aldworth became increasingly aware of “how fragile we are”.

Susan Aldworth with mandalas by Camille
Susan Aldworth with mandalas by Camille

WHILE researching the science behind schizophrenia, artist Susan Aldworth became increasingly aware of “how fragile we are”.

As a printmaker and filmmaker, Susan has always been fascinated by how the brain works. During a two-year residency at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, she gained new insight into human perception.

“Working with scientists and psychiatrists made me realise how lucky most of us are to wake up the same person most mornings,” she says.

“Most of us take ‘ourselves’ for granted but schizophrenia can trigger very suddenly and no one really understands what it is.”

According to mental health charity Mind, one in 100 people suffer from schizophrenia and symptoms include delusions, hearing voices and being apathetic.

Susan, who studied philosophy and fine art, says: “As an artist I am fascinated by the physical brain and the impact of it on identity, particularly as neuroscience is so visual.

“Schizophrenia was always slightly dangerous as no one knows quite what it is. And yet nearly every family must have been touched by the condition.”

She adds: “My inroad was, ‘if schizophrenia hasn’t died out through evolution, what does it tell us about the human condition – particularly creativity?’”

At the close of her residency, Susan has organised Reassembling the Self, an exhibition of work at two galleries – Vane and the Hatton in Newcastle – weaving together art, science, psychiatry and people’s stories.

Vane has dedicated one gallery space to work by two artists whom Susan was introduced to by psychiatrists at Newcastle University. She describes encountering their work as finding a ‘pot of gold’.

On one wall are four beautifully detailed mandalas (circles) drawn with fine-liner pen by Camille.

“You look at them in terms of pattern but in the detail is symbolic imagery, such as angels, hearts and eyes,” Susan says.

“Camille sees guardian angels behind people and I view these pieces as very spiritual and joyous. I think these works are magnificent.”

Alongside Camille’s work are paintings by Kevin which are inspired by his internal voices and his fascination with superstition and left-handedness.

“I think Kevin’s use of paint is very fluent and he is a great colourist,” Susan says. “When he became ill he stopped painting but now he has come back to it he can’t stop.

She adds: “People with schizophrenia often see significance in things we don’t. If you can’t tell the difference between what is significant and what isn’t, it makes the world a very scary place.

“Schizophrenia is very difficult to live with so to be able to paint with joy is phenomenal. Kevin can also be witty about his experience in his art.”

Susan, who lives in London, adds: “I’m proud to hang ‘outsider’ artists with ‘insiders’ (those have studied at art school). Basically it is all art. What I love about this show is bringing it all together in a way that makes no judgments.”

Around the corner at Vane is a sound installation by Alessandro Altavilla, The Loud Self. The artist has programmed a computer to search in real time for people tweeting ‘I heard voices’. The tweets are then spoken aloud by a computer’s synthesised voice and broadcast through a transistor radio in the gallery.

The disembodied voice complements the dislocated imagery of Susan’s remarkable lithographs, also hanging here.

Susan worked with master printmaker Stanley Jones at the Curwen Centre in Cambridge to make the prints based on anatomical drawings, photos and words spoken by Camille and Kevin.

Susan says: “I made work in response to my residency, and what I decided early on was that ethically I was not going to comment on schizophrenics. That is not my business. So all my work is about the relationship between the physical body and our brains and who we are.

“Identity is something I can handle honestly and I hoped to make people think about the stigma surrounding schizophrenia. For instance, cinema is generally terrible at showing madness.”

Over at the Hatton Gallery is a giant dosage meter which will pop out 192,000 pills – a lifetime’s supply of anti-psychotic medication – over the course of the show.

Meanwhile artist Sarah Blood has responded to Camille’s drawings of guardian angels by creating a large neon angel.

The Hatton is also displaying more paintings and drawings by Camille and Kevin alongside a film by Susan based on Daniel Paul Schreber’s book, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

Susan says: “The Vane show is about hearing voices, auditory hallucination and superstition. The show at the Hatton is more about identity and the relationship between the body and the condition of schizophrenia.”

A documentary about Reassembling the Self – made by Nathan Buck and Nelly Stavropoulou can be viewed at both shows.

Reassembling the Self is at Vane, Commercial Union House, 39 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, and Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery, until October 20. Visit www.vane.org.uk. It is part of the People’s Philosophy Festival at Newcastle University which runs from October 6-12, www.newphilsoc.org.uk

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