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SCA exhibition accused of stigmatising mental health

Alexandros Tsathas reports

An art exhibition at the Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) has been slammed by a psychiatrist and Sydney Medical School associate for its “unethical” representation of mental health care.

Roger Ballen’s “Theatre of the Mind” exhibition, currently on display at SCA, features an installation in the complex’s usually inaccessible basement known as the “Theatre of Darkness”.

It in, manikins, furniture and other objects are arranged in rooms made to look like solitary confinement cells. Pre-recorded screams of “let me out of here” and “help my baby” are played through hidden speakers. The exhibition’s official guide states “this is the place where people with what nineteenth century medicine might call raving madness were contained.”

The SCA’s Rozelle campus is the former site of the Callan Park Mental Hospital.

According to psychiatrist Dr Richard White, who has published on Australian psychiatric history and interned at Callan Park 40 years ago, it is “unethical to dramatize the space” in such a way, a view he says is shared by many of his colleagues.

“It doesn’t do justice to the nurses, attendants and doctors, who all worked in difficult conditions, and it doesn’t help patients now or back then.”

“There is no evidence patients were ever contained in the so-called ‘dungeons’”. Although a Royal Commission in 1961 found overcrowding and squalor at Callan Park, the solitary confinement of patients in underground cells “simply didn’t happen in Sydney in 1874”.

A University spokesperson said “the content for the exhibition and supporting material including guides is drawn from research and the expertise of the curator and artist”.

“The history of the site as a place of intense psychological activity and creativity render this a highly suggestive and appropriate place to present an exhibition of Ballen’s work.”

Four other above-ground galleries are lined with pieces in Ballen’s signature aesthetic: black-and-white photographs of the marginalised, poor and mentally-ill in various strained poses.

In a recent Radio National interview, Arts Today presenter Michael Cathcart asked Ballen “what would you say to a person on an ethics committee who says that you’re exploiting these people, that they are vulnerable, that you’re posing them the way you want?”

Ballen responded “I would say that person ought to be committed to an institution”.

According to the University, “the annual exhibition program at the SCA Galleries is agreed by an exhibition programming committee consisting of SCA academics and an external industry specialist. The ethical process for considering exhibitions is part of the role of this committee”.

The last day of the Theatre of the Mind exhibition is May 7.