When I saw this book on my fave site, BrainPickings, I immediately called around the local bookstores and found a copy downtown.
One of the 19th-century’s most notorious socioarchitectural phenomena were the “insane asylums” that housed the era’s mentally ill — enormous and stunning buildings whose architecture stood in stark contrast with the ominous athmosphere of their inner workings. Fascinated by this phenomenon and its ghosts, photographer Christopher Payne set out to document the afterlife of those baleful buildings in Asylum: Inside The Closed World Of State Mental Hospitals — a compendium of images that peel away at a lost world and, in the process, offer a provocative portrait of the history of our (mis)treatment of the mentally ill. A foreword by iconic neuroscientist Oliver Sacks frame the photographs in a sociocultural context of how these institutions evolved and what role they came to play, both in their time and in our reflections on history.
My friend, Darcy, and I poured over it, at once fascinated, sad, gleeful and horrified. We talked about what it may mean to us, to any of us, to feel these conflicting emotions.
For me, there is such a visual metaphor in these massive fortresses. No matter how large they were, they could not contain the anarchistic and primitive human spirit stripped raw by mental illness/circumstance/trauma/misunderstanding. There was an attempt to contain and cure.
But what are we containing? How? Why? What are we killing by “curing” as opposed to embracing and providing a safe haven, a nurturing environment? And what about the seemingly failed experiment of outdoor asylums like the Downtown Eastside?
Planning a return visit to the Riverview grounds do some in situ sketches.