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Art Museum of the Mind

On location: Filmmaker Jessica Yu focuses on psychiatric patients and their creative forum.

July 12, 1998|John Clark | John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — In a large, loft-like building on a mild, wintry day, a group of artists are preparing their work space for a show. Paintings and sculptures are adjusted. Floors are scrubbed. Lights are strung. A black and white photograph of each artist is hung beside their respective studios, accompanied by a name tag. Absent are the usual pretentious, sermonizing artists' statements describing their work. The art--playful, brooding, provocative--speaks for itself.

"It's all about sex," says John Tursi of his couplings made out of tongue depressors, plastic water bottles, yarn and paper bags. "I don't know why that is."

It's about a lot more than sex. Proving the point is the presence of a documentary film crew headed by filmmaker Jessica Yu, who won the best documentary short Oscar in 1997 for "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien." Today Yu is shooting inserts of the artists' photographs and some of their art. For nine months she has been following these people around, interviewing them about their lives and their work, gathering footage for a film that will address issues of creativity and mental illness in ways that a biopic of Vincent van Gogh never could.

Yu's subjects are not preening SoHo art stars. They are patients at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. Their 20,000-square-foot studio, called the Living Museum, is a former kitchen/dining room on the institution's dreary, high-security grounds.

Built in the 1920s on what was once farmland and a rifle range, Creedmoor is famous--infamous, really--as the end of the line for people who could not afford private psychiatric care. Over the years it has housed a largely geriatric population of patients who didn't belong there (Alzheimer's and postpartum-depression patients), as well as patients who did (manic depressives, schizophrenics).

With budget cuts and the push toward deinstitutionalization, Creedmoor is downsizing and the population has dropped from around 7,000 to 575. Of those left, some stay on the grounds while others are outpatients who live in halfway houses or even their own apartments. All at one time or another have been a danger to themselves or someone else, or they wouldn't be here.

Yu describes the local--indeed universal--attitude toward places like Creedmoor and its inhabitants this way: "Just today a cabdriver (taking me there) was saying, 'I remember when I was growing up, they'd say, "You'd better be good, or we'll send you to Creedmoor. We get $50 if they take you at Creedmoor." ' That's what his parents would tell him when he was bad."

Dr. Janos Marton, the museum's frenetic, practical-minded director, calls this attitude "psychophobia. It's like racism or sexism. It's the fear of the mentally ill. It's such a strong thing because people project their own mishegas, mental illness, into it. So whatever they fear in themselves they like to project onto the mentally ill."

It's neither a joke nor an exaggeration to say that it's difficult to separate the artists from the visitors at the Living Museum. Is that guy stringing lights a gaffer or a schizophrenic? Are such distinctions relevant? According to Yu, such questions are part of the point of the museum.

"You start to realize that you have to assume that everyone is not a patient," Yu says. "And that's also what the Living Museum is about, that it tries to get you out of that traditional mind-set where you're like, 'Oh, I'm at a psychiatric institution. I need to make these differentiations.' They are not useful at all."

The patients' illnesses are not necessarily explicit in their work. There are few, if any, melancholy self-portraits or despairing views of modern life. The only direct commentary on their condition is upstairs, in a handful of collective installations made years ago. There's the "TV Room," a wall of TVs satirizing the mind-numbing TV watching on the wards. There's the "Home Room," with painted dishes, an ancient hi-fi, and other assorted household artifacts, reflecting the patients' homesickness (worsened by the fact that many are estranged from their families). In another corner is "The Hospital," featuring an enormous waste basket full of crumpled, bureaucratic Creedmoor memos and several crates of matchbooks--an allusion to another time killer on the wards, cigarette smoking.

"The only good thing about mental illness is that you are blessed by artistic creativity," Marton says. "Everything else is a horror. That is my message to the world. I have two basic underlying attitudes. I believe that everybody is an artist. In addition, I believe that everybody who went through a psychotic episode--at one point communicated with voices, was in this sort of spiritual domain--and returned to tell the story is potentially a great artist. And in a way the museum is proof of that."

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