Being based in a linguistics department I have become very aware of the language I use. After years in medical environments I have become somewhat inured to the routine use of objectifying and pathological terminology. Although still hierarchical the academic environment I find myself in here seems softer and more aware. The overt feminist ethos for me is strangely enlightening and the ever-present theorising is stimulating albeit challenging. Of course it is right to look beyond reductionist and positivist paradigms, to be truly interdisciplinary. I have realised how little my formal education prepared me for this and how lacking it is in my usual work environment.
Almost two decades in academia have made me my lose my voice. I have become like a machine. These days I work for the British HE industry. The language has changed. There is talk of income generation, outcome measurement, performance review and student satisfaction ratings. Sometimes I feel I don’t have an original thought in my head. Until I think about art and mental health, which I will return to.
I am speaking two languages now, my mother tongue of English and my father’s native tongue, German. My father rarely spoke German to us as children. The evidence about bilingualism now points to all sorts of cognitive, cultural and social benefits, including, note to my colleagues, protection against dementia. In Basel they speak a variant, Swiss German or Schweizerdeutsch or more precisely Low Alemannic. Language switching leads to a sense of disorientation at first but becomes more like mental gymnastics, a clue as to why it is so good for you.
At an exhibition of Steve McQueen’s films at the Schaulager art bunker I confronted two big fears; eyeball touching and ageing. His film ‘Charlotte’ features a close study of the eye of Charlotte Rampling shrouded in an red inky film. McQueen’s probing finger ventures closer and closer to Rampling’s unguarded eyeball. As someone who endured 10 years of opthalmology appointments to correct astigmatism, this filled me with quaking fear. The eye is such a powerful part of our sensory equipment and yet so vulnerable. I recalled the regular visits to the doctor as a child, my head tipped back whilst the cold, dilating drops were squirted into my eyes, my eyelids blinking wildly. Then the sense of disorientation as the drops took effect. The doctor’s finger coming closer to my eye, my vision blurred, his breath on my face. And the lunch with my mother afterwards that was my reward for cooperating. I cant bear my eyes or anyone else’s being touched, how I conquered the use of contact lenses is a little miracle. McQueen does indeed touch Rampling’s eyeball and also gently massages the loose skin hanging over her eye socket, the medical term for this is dermatochalasis, big business for plastic surgeons. McQueen’s gesture is oddly tender and has a sculptural quality as he smoothes the skin gently up and away from the eye but of course it falls back accordingly to gravity after a few seconds. Yet her beautiful eye remains sparkling, unflinching. I felt touched and repulsed equally to witness this.
My daughter recently asked who Jodie Marsh was and why was she famous. The truth is I don’t really know who she is although I know of her. She appears on reality TV and I understand that she has had some work done i.e. plastic surgery. Sadly there is a whole industry in the UK that runs on the exploits of Jodie et al. It is nice to be away from that and playing ping pong in the park tonight surrounded by many different generations it felt like a more innocent age. We have been having some wonderfully thoughtful conversations since we’ve been here. We stood atop the remains of the amphitheatre at the Roman ruins of Augusta Raurica last weekend, as if caught between the old and new Switzerland, rolling green mountains and wooden houses in one direction and the belching smokestacks of the chemical and pharma industries in the other. We discussed the environment, relationships, and the holocaust.
Aside the opportunity to work in the wonderful Englisches Senminar in Basel I am excited to be in the vicinity of some very fine outsider art collections. My exhibition ‘art in the asylum: creativity and the evolution of psychiatry’ opens in September at the Djanogly gallery in the UK. This project has been a labour of love for me over the past four years and I am thrilled that it is finally coming to fruition. One of my favourite galleries, in Lausanne (Collection de l’art Brut) holds the collection of Jean Dubuffet who coined the term Art Brut, referring to art created at the margins of society, untainted by formal training. The term often refers to art made by people incarcerated in asylums. Perhaps my favourite artist of this genre is Adolf Wölfli a native of Bern who spent most of his adult life in the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital, after a series of serious offences he committed. His work has a complex, magical quality, full of symbols and strange mask-like faces that appear to follow you as you look. He spent many year working in this distinctive repetitive style, a characteristic shared by many other outsider artists. And yes, we have some of Wölfli’s work in the show.