Visions of power and darkness
Ghent’s Dr Guislain museum has always excelled in offering art trips along the boundaries of what is considered mentally normal. Its collection of outsider art – works by psychiatric patients offering a glimpse of their inner world – has become worldrenowned over recent years.
Flemish artist’s work takes psychiatry as a metaphor for modern-day control
The exhibitions at the museum – a psychiatric centre, a museum on the history of psychiatry and an art centre – often question the role of mental institutions in the contemporary world. This summer the museum hosts Gideon Kiefer’s Science Conceals Madness.
In this new series, selected from his oeuvre by the Guislain curators, Kiefer shows a world where everyone and everything is under control. Nurses, doctors and psychiatrists control apathetic patients. Large and sinister figures outside the frame control everything happening within. Science is the pretext for a groundless balance of power that strips the individual of his or her uniqueness.
For Kiefer, medicine and psychiatry are only metaphors to explain what is at hand in the world today. “The drawings show strange scenes,” he explains on a tour around the show. “Psychiatrists and doctors are not necessarily people who have good intentions, and the terms insanity and science have been misused a lot over time.”
One of the largest drawings in the exhibition is a portrait of Ewen Cameron, a Scottish psychiatrist who, in the 1960s, experimented with intensified electroshock therapy to erase people’s ability to withstand brainwashing. Kiefer: “This man thought of the following scheme: completely erase a patient’s memories with shocks, bring him into a state where he doesn’t know where he is, who he is or what is happening. Then fill the void with new ideas that you want him to have.”
Opposite, visitors can see a depiction of the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland. It might not seem like it at first, but this also refers to electroshock therapy. “In The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, she describes how Cameron’s psychiatric findings were translated into a theory for societal and economical change,” explains Kiefer. “Countries and societies have been repeatedly brought into a state of confusion through shock so governments can pass controversial reforms. Just like in the book, my rabbit hole stands for the state of confusion. We still see the same thing happening today, with drastic cuts everywhere because of the economic crisis.’
The abuse of science to control society seems to be one of the central themes in Kiefer’s work, though he admits that some of his works are purely personal.
“The drawings you see here are works which have a clear link with the museum,” he says. “I wouldn’t dare to say that all my works originate from a societal commitment. But on the other hand, it is true, invisible powers are a recurrent theme, as well as the use of psychiatry as a symbol of wielding power over people.”
In Kiefer’s work, characters with power are always drawn much larger than those subjected to it. “In my eyes, it is not about people having power over other people. Normal people are too small to notice that they are subjected to dark forces. They just don’t know about them.”
Another recurrent element in his drawings is the use of black or blue lines, sometimes numbered, dividing and schematising the work. Does that stand for the tendency of science to always measure and objectify?
Kiefer: “Not really. My work is very figurative. That’s why it’s easily characterised as ‘academic’.” He believes the academic world always tries to prescribe what art should look like, and rebels against this prescriptive attitude.
“I start a drawing with perspective lines. When I paint they disappear. But in the end phase I draw them on again, sometimes even with a ballpoint. That’s my middle finger to the academic world. It’s the same with the work of Francis Bacon: He used to work on a painting for days and at the end he would splash a streak of white paint over the finished work.
“It’s an act of self-destruction which I think is quite amusing. You actually do it to put yourself in perspective. But on the other hand, the lines have become a symbol of the web that has imprisoned the characters in the drawing. They cannot get out of the web. It adds a certain level of abstraction.”
These figures are caught in a web, a situation of powerlessness they cannot get out of. That sounds a lot like the structure of nightmares – something Kiefer knows all about.
“I suffer from a sleeping disorder called pavor nocturnus or night terror,” he says. “I am troubled by terrible nightmares that make me come out of bed at night, running away from unknown beings chasing me. It’s not life-threatening, even though once I threw myself out of the window running from something that was coming up the stairs.
“I’ve been suffering from it since a very early age. It is very tiring as well; every night I lose about a quarter of my normal sleep. You can do nothing about it. Over the years I have written a lot of them down in a night book. I suffer from the disorder, but at the same time it is a major source of inspiration for me.”
Until 6 October
Dr Guislain Museum
Jozef Guislaanstraat 43, Ghent