Exhibit shines light on mental illness

by | Oct 9, 2015 | A&E

Jimmy Kakish
A&E Reporter

Alarming tales of the mistreatment of the mentally ill from decades past often elude the occupied minds of the general public.

Anne Zbitnew, a Humber College media foundation professor and artist, reminds people of these types of stories with the second installment of her exhibit, Visualizing Absence: Memorializing The Histories of The Former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.

The exhibit first began as Zbitnew’s Masters research project for her performance arts class at York University. It was spawned in contrast to a Halloween event at Humber’s Lakeshore campus called “Asylum by the Lake,” the poster for which included a photograph of a psychiatric patient.

“They were serving alcoholic drinks in test tubes with red liquid. They would tie people to chairs, they would jump out at them and scare (them),” Zbitnew said.

“Basically it was making fun of the institution as an asylum and I remember thinking when I saw that poster that I (needed) to undo (what the poster conveyed),” she said.

Walking into the exhibit, there is a sense Zbitnew has achieved her goal. With Visualizing Absence, she successfully transformed patient records from the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital into an intricate art exhibit that combines elements of humanity with inanimate objects to yield something interesting and thought provoking.

“I like that it’s grounded in people and human stories and not just the idea that, ‘Oh, this was bad, it was a bad thing (to have happened) and a lot of bad things were done (at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital),’” said Cara Eastcott, program director of Tangled Art + Disability, the exhibit’s host.

For some, analyzing and experiencing the bad things memorialized through this exhibit prove themselves to be too overwhelming and draining, but for good reason.

“(It’s) overwhelmingly sad, but (it) also (makes me feel) hopeful that these stories will cause others to treat those dealing with mental illness with less fear and contempt,” said Anne Frost, program co-ordinator of Humber Lakeshore’s arts adminstration and cultural management program.

“(It) could be (anyone), buddy,” she said.

It is because of instances like this that a supportive listener (somebody that is there to listen to people in need of consolation) has been present since the exhibit’s Oct. 3 opening.

“For a lot of people when you start reading the descriptions or looking at the art work, it may evoke a feeling or bring up things that may be challenging you at the time,” said Zbitnew. “So I think it’s really important to have a supportive listener there, someone who’s neutral.”

“They’re not there to tell you about the art, but if you want to talk, they’re there to help you talk,” Zbitnew continued.

The exhibit is completely accessible by all walks of life and was designed specifically to be accessible by the disabled. Any art that adorns the walls is lowered for shorter people or people in mobility devices.

In the gallery, a typewriter sits still in the middle of the room. Inside it is a speaker playing a calm, stuttering drum loop made by Zbitnew’s husband, Dave. People are invited to place their hands on the typewriter to feel the vibrations coming from the speaker.

“It’s a lot more accessible (for disabled people) and inclusive, so it engages so many more senses. When you feel a vibration, it goes into your body and there’s something about that that shakes you all over,” said Zbitnew.

Tangled Art + Disability is North America’s first disability arts gallery and is the host of the exhibit. Captions for the works of art are typed in large font and often include a line drawing of the art next to the caption for the illiterate to recognize. Audio descriptions of each work of art are offered for the visually impaired, and for the hearing impaired, there was an ESL sign interpreter.

The exhibit opened Oct. 3 and will be shown at the future home of Tangled Art + Disability located at 401 Richmond St. W. in Gallery 122 until Dec. 3.