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ONLY WHEN WE DREAM ARE WE ALIVE
January 16, 2012 - March 31, 2012
Organized in conjunction with NAEMI (National Art Exhibitions by the Mentally Ill), this exhibition challenges traditional stereotypes by presenting works from a group of mentally challenged artist-photographers from the largest and most notable psychiatric hospital in Argentina. Using pinhole cameras, or miniature camera obscuras—with limited light and extended exposure times—the artists produce works with an impressive primitive quality and accidental blurring that creates an effect of mystery and poetry.
When art is made in a psychiatric hospital
By José Antonio Navarrete
The exhibition We are only alive when we dream. Frente de Artistas del Borda (Borda Artists’ Front) brings together a collection of photos selected by Ricardo Viera, Director and Curator of the Lehigh University Art Galleries, Museum Operation (LUAG), from a previous selection made in Hospital José Tiburcio Borda, a mental health center located in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from participation of the artist-patients linked to the pinhole camera creative photography workshop, which takes place in this center. The selection, in its successive phases has included images created throughout the history of the workshop until the present day.
For this project, Lehigh University art galleries – the location of the first presentation of an exhibition, which was conceived as itinerant – have joined forces with National Art Exhibitions of the Mentally Ill Inc (NAEMI) – an organization based in Miami, founded in 1988 by Juan Martín, its Executive Director since its creation, when it started to roll out work programs that promote the artistic and literary creation of the mentally ill. Both institutions have established a model of co-operation with El Frente de Artistas del Borda, which was created in 1984, with the objective of helping in-patients and out-patients of this hospital to produce art as a tool for social transformation that connects them to society and questions the popular conception of “madness”.
The general strategy of the Front has been what its mentors have termed “deinstitutionalisation”, which entails inclusive attention to those subject to mental treatments. In order to do this, the creative workshops have served as a medium for the interaction of patients with society, so the resulting products have access to public space, such as in the case of the current show, where photos of some artist-patients which could not be identified have been brought together with those of Silvia Barrera, Liliana Jakimenko, Javier Karat, Pablo Morales, Rubén Rey, Marcelo Rocca, Gabriel Romano and Victor Sheffer.
In the following interview, we chat with the curator about some of the complex problems that this exhibition present, regarding artistic practices.
José Antonio Navarrete interviews Ricardo Viera
JAN: Ricardo, as we have said, this exhibition is promoted by NAEMI (National Art Exhibitions of the Mentally Ill Inc.), an organization set up in Miami, which in its 23 years of existence has spread the artistic and literary practices of mentally ill people, not only in that city, but also in the rest of the USA and, more widely at an international level. Also, you have been an NAEMI collaborator in more than one project. Not wishing to ask too much of your memory, could you sum up the fundamental landmarks on the journey of NAEMI in this line of work?
RV: NAEMI exhibitions have been shown annually in Miami and have circulated in various museums and art galleries throughout the United States, from New York to Washington D.C. Also, in the European Union in Spain and Belgium. In Latin America in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, Paraguay and Guatemala.
Due to the lack of publications concerning mentally ill artists—especially in the Spanish context—NAEMI has considered it very important to facilitate the publication of books and catalogs to get people familiar not only with the artists whose work is displayed in the collection, but also with the idea and existence of this specific type of art. Also, these publications can be a reference for those who work in the field thanks to the articles written by experts in the field of mental health, education, art as a source of information. The most important works published by NAEMI are: Selections from the NAEMI Art Collection, 2003, published in USA; Echo: the Silent Outsider, 2005, editorial Buschi Argentina, a monograph work dedicated to the work of a mentally ill artist named Echo; Nuevos Horizontes en el Arte Outsider Hispano/New Horizons in Hispanic Outsider Art, (2005, Editorial ENOKIA S.L), a bilingual catalog; Outsider, an Inside Art/Outsider, un arte interno (2007 Editorial Eneida), a bilingual catalog, and Outsider Outstanding Art/Outsider Arte fuera de serie, (2009 Editorial Eneida) a bilingual catalog.
Naemi have in his permanent collection near 1200 art works. Its final goal is open a museum dedicated exclusively to the art of the mentally ill.
JAN: Let’s move on to the project in question. This is an exhibition that, without doubt, encourages us once again to ask ourselves about the peculiarities of photography as a medium for image production. To start with, I think we would all be interested in hearing your critical perception of the photos on display in this show.
RV: First of all, the images in this particular exhibition challenge a traditional stereotype of photography for the following reasons: the makers are a group of mentally challenged individual artists/photographers members of Frente de Artistas del Borda. The Hospital Interdisciplinario Psicoasistencial José Tiburcio Borda (nickname: El Borda) is the largest and most notable psychiatric hospital in Argentina.
The group utilizes Pinhole Camera or Miniature Camera Obscura—a light proof box/container, one side of which is pierced by a pinhole without a lens. Light rays enter through the hole and strike a sensitized surface or film on the opposite side of the box/container, producing an upside-down image. The limited amount of light necessitates extended exposure times, and the results are inevitably soft and relatively undetailed. My critical perception of the image is based on the fact that there’s a primitive quality in these images that to me is aesthetically impressive. The blurring deliberately used in fine art photography too, is purely accidental in pinhole images, as in this particular case, creating a distinctive effect of mystery and poetry.
JAN: In this show, the collection of photographic works are, as you mentioned, understood as pieces of art. With this in mind, was there any particular challenge in making the selection? Or better still, would you like to comment on anything in particular about the selection process?
RV: Certainly there is always a challenge, particularly in these artworks. I’d say that correlating the elements of chance and psychological reaction with the sense of place gives you a framework for a suggestive aesthetic discourse.
My curatorial idea is based on material that was pre-selected in Argentina, collectively with the mentally ill patient/workshop-members. This selection process is not only always the most difficult for me as curator but, as Vanina Berto (the co-ordinator of the photography workshop of the Frente del Borda and participant in the previous process) mentioned, in this case, the choosing between 10 or 15 people favors what he calls “deinstitutionalisation”, that is to say, giving everyone a voice. Berto goes on to tell us that when selecting the work, they put the artworks on a big table, then handed out pieces of coloured paper to each participant, who put the pieces of paper on the artworks that they chose, according to their personal criteria. In this way, some of the artworks remained and others were discarded. Afterwards, to ascertain the final order of elimination, they discussed the images that had been previously selected. As a final word, my role is not only to select and present the images or to edit them as, in my opinion, they are transcendent because, for me, p
hotography as contemporary art is not just the image, but also the ideas.
JAN: As we know, the visual production of people who have experienced mental illnesses is conceptualized and labelled “outsider art”, which refers to art produced without being part of the art of a given time or place.
One of the most prominent art critics in the USA, Arthur Danto, wrote in his article “Outsider Art”, published in The Nation in 1997, some words I’d like to share with you:
“Clearly, we need a better term than “outsider art.” “Self-taught artist” will not serve, since there are too many good self-taught artists who by no stretch of the term’s extension could be counted outsiders. If we were Germans we could frame a nice Heideggerian compound such as Ausderkunstweltkunstleren—”artists-not-of-the-art-world”—which I do not especially recommend for any forthcoming dictionary of art. Whatever the case, the proportion of masterpieces and genius, and the incidence of quality among outsiders, is about what we would find within the art world. The causes, explanations and meanings, of course, differ from what the art world understands and teaches.”
What do you think about Danto’s comment?
RV: In truth, I don’t disagree with Arthur Danto’s conceptual intention, with regard to the need to find better classifications and greater expressive clarity than what is contained in the terms ‘outsider art’, ‘self-taught artist’ and, I would add, ‘l’art brut’. However, the reality is something else, as within some of the diverse universes of the visual arts, where numerous institutions exist which are sacred to some segment of the arts – such as auction houses, fine arts and decorative art galleries, antique shops, popular art galleries, to mention but a few, the term “outsider art” holds a special air of rebellion or something very specialized or rare, not only little-known or ignored, but also especially interpreted in accordance with a specialized market, that is to say, with commercial importance as well as with the trajectory of the author/artist identified with this term.
It should also be said that the theme and conceptual intention of our show is even more complex and is related to another terminology established by a 20th century artist, Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985). He sought and humanistically created awareness and knowledge of the importance and value of the images produced by these people. He produced the first collection of what he termed “ArtBrut”.
JAN: It seems I can’t avoid this last question, being about the fact that you always underline, in all your public interventions, the educational character possessed by the processes carried out by Lehigh Galleries, both in the collecting and exhibiting program, in short, as well as all the other facets of your work. What importance does this show have in relation to the institutional profile of the Lehigh Galleries?
RV: As you say, the eight galleries of Lehigh University, Museum Operation (LUAG), spread around three campuses are part of the educational process of our program, thus working as a visual laboratory for the Permanent Collection / Teaching Collection and, at the same time, for all the permanent and temporary exhibitions that we install in our spaces, including sculpture and open-air architecture.
A creative photography show like Frente de Artistas del Borda’s We are only alive when we dream serves as an example of the humanism within the diversity and situation of the artists. It also shows a creative method using a photographic tool with a certain historical notoriety and mysterious and poetic results, as can be seen in these images made with the pinhole camera.
VIDEO: “NAEMI’s Artists (Artistas de NAEMI)” : 2012