Bloom: New Public Memorializations of Mental Health History

by Gabriel Cheung* 

In 2003, Anna Schuleit orchestrated a herculean feat: the recently defunct Massachusetts Mental Health Centre (MMHC) was temporarily filled with 28,000 potted, blooming flowers and 5,600 square feet of live sod. The organic media filled hallways and rooms, flowing around abandoned furniture, filling the pool, and transforming the floors into broad, bright swatches of colour. Recorded sounds from the institution’s final days—footsteps, muted conversations between patients and staff members, doors opening and closing—played through the old public announcement system, creating an immersive, multi-sensory experience. The site-specific installation, entitled Bloom, was a “community remembrance in honour of the former life of [the] building,” a 91-year-old historic institution and its myriad occupants.[1] In the four days leading up to the building’s demolition, the work welcomed the public into the Massachusetts Mental Health Centre. A symposium and open forum held on the front steps of the building coincided with the event, with former patients and staff invited to share their stories.

Framed as a work of public art-cum-memorial, Bloom fits comfortably into the context of mental health history’s memorialization, an initiative that has been carried to the forefront of the contemporary North American milieu on a wave of public concern with mental health issues. The installation represents a platform from which to investigate the negotiation of pluralistic memories, as well as other tactics that respond to challenges facing the memorial form. How did Schuleit employ the mediated nature of memory to accommodate the multiplicity of histories surrounding such a fraught locus, and how does a public art approach reinforce or undermine the goals of memorialization? Situating Bloom against a backdrop of other memorials while simultaneously distancing it from the moralizing strategies of the ubiquitous memorial gravesite, this paper posits the project as an alternative mode of memorialization. In this capacity, it is conducive to a conceptualization of new modes of memorialization—ones that possess an increased sensitivity to contemporary understandings of memory as it plays out across the memorial’s appearance, accessibility, and audience.

MEMORIALIZATION IN A MENTAL HEALTH CONTEXT

Memorialization is driven by the desire to embalm specific aspects of the past for consumption in the present—memory, understood as a mode of re-presentation, acts as the vehicle for this process. Understandably, the impulse to memorialize becomes more urgent as progress herds temporal milestones into the past with increased haste. Contemporary memory scholarship assumes that memory is activated by present concerns and anxieties, that it narrates shared identities and constructs a sense of communal belonging, that it is animated by affect, that it is partial and partisan, and that it relies on material or symbolic supports.[2] Andreas Huyssen is most succinct in his theorization of the relationship between the past, memory, and memorialization when he writes that the past must be articulated to become memory. The fissure between past and present mediated by this articulation represents a margin of freedom that renders memory more alive than a simple unit for storage and retrieval. The act of memorialization can thus be recognized as a subjective bipartite process by which the past is not only consumed through remembrance but also produced in a selective practice that responds to the needs of the present; accordingly, it is more complex than the preservation of a singular, objective past. Rather than lamenting the impossibility of an objective past, however, Huyssen astutely argues that the chasm between experiencing an event and remembering it through representation should be understood as a stimulant for cultural and artistic creativity.[3]

In light of these concepts, one can conceive of the memorial as part of the manufactured infrastructure of memory, serving as an access point for engagement with and negotiation of the past. The memorial also functions as a “memory place,” a delineated physical space of public memory that is notably distinguished from Pierre Nora’s lieu de mémoire by its almost universally perceived credibility.[4] As a signifier, a demarcated place is distinguished from an undefined space,announcing memory places as sites of special attention. These places draw their power through two main channels. Their status as destinations exploits touristic assumptions that predispose visitors to expect something significant or meaningful on their travels. Their very existence is also a source of credibility—places are expensive to produce, hence the monetary investment in their production corroborates their importance.[5]

At this point, a clarification of terms may be beneficial. As James Young recognizes, there is a general understanding of memorials as sites of mourning where past deaths and tragedies are remembered, and monuments as sites of celebration where triumphs and heroes are honoured. Young counters this notion of memorial and monument as inherently distinct objects with divergent inclinations, proposing instead that memorials are any site of memory—a book, a festival, a space, or a sculpture—whereas monuments are the plastic objects within these sites.[6] With this definition in mind, my characterization of Bloom as a memorial avoids narrow connotations of either a mournful or celebratory disposition. To further nuance the project’s categorization, I suggest that Bloom can be considered a tribute, distinct from “monument.” This speaks to the ephemeral and performative qualities of the work in contrast to the relative permanence and material nature of the monument.

The fact that memory is inherently a contrivance carries with it both dangers and possibilities for the memorial form. Monuments can concretize particular historical interpretations, privileging the memories of a hegemonic group and entrenching it as the objective past. The archetypal stone monument functions as a self-corroborating structure, naturalizing its version of history through the illusionistic indignity and permanence of its material. This ossification of memory is culprit in the production of what Nietzsche termed “monumental history”: a petrified version of history with a deceptive sense of totality that casts all other perspectives into oblivion and resists an evolving understanding of past events.[7]

In many instances, the past is also invoked as a way of understanding or justifying current conditions or beliefs.[8] Specific to the context of psychiatry, a history of transgressions can be invoked as a foil to current (presumably more effective and humane) practices. Recent projects at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital (Toronto), the former Woodlands Institute (New Westminster), and the Danvers State Hospital are prime illustrations of this process at work. At the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, personal headstones are beginning to replace the generic row markers that barely hinted at the presence of approximately 1511 deceased mental health patients (Fig. 1); a new black steel fence with a plaque that reads, “May they Rest in Peace and not be forgotten” was installed in 2012 (Fig. 2).[9] Similar endeavours to restore removed or missing gravestones began at the Woodlands Institute in 2005 and the Danvers State Hospital in 2001.[10]

Flat stones marking gravesites at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery.

Fig. 1: Flat stones mark the graves at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery.

The memorial gravesite as a mode of commemoration is limiting in its one-dimensionality. Its sole focus on loss carries a deeply moralistic tone that implicitly celebrates the triumphs of modern methods by condemning past practices. The Danvers State Hospital website illustrates this in its unambiguously reproachful statement:

At state hospitals all across Massachusetts there is a terrible sight: row upon row of small concrete markers with only a number. These anonymous graves mark the resting place of our sisters and brothers—former patients who died at state hospitals—abandoned in life and death.[11]

This pessimistic packaging of the psychiatric past highlights the profession’s progress and gently discourages critical scrutiny in the present. The parallel drawn between patients’ treatment in life and death also seems to suggest that current, more empathetic modes of memorialization are reflective of better care.

Gravesites cater almost exclusively to a private experience for those with direct ties to the deceased individuals, in this case mental health patients. At best, they are inaccessible for those without such connections; at worst, they further alienate the public from issues concerning mental health. Lastly, Nicolas Whybrow identifies the static memorial for mourning as a site for unshouldering the burden of remembrance—visitors can lay down their tokenistic commemorative wreaths, passing their obligation to remember onto the physical monument itself.[12]

A new black, steel fence was installed at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery.

Fig. 2: A new black, steel fence was installed at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery.

BLOOM AS ALTERNATIVE MODE OF MEMORIALIZATION

Although roughly aligned with these commemorative efforts, Bloom distanced itself from them, not only with its scale and aesthetic emphasis, but also through its tone and commitment to engaging a more general public audience. Schuleit was approached to create a project for the closing of the MMHC building about three months before its scheduled demolition.[13] The call was likely motivated by her sound installation Habeas Corpus at the Northampton State Hospital in 2000. Employing the acoustic possibilities of the abandoned structure and a sound system specifically designed for the work, she made the empty building ring with a performance of Bach’s “Magnificat” (Fig. 3). Schuleit had also been a visiting artist at Westboro State Hospital for three years prior to the invitation, demonstrating that she was not only experienced with large-scale public artworks, but had also worked with mental health patients on a regular basis.

Audio setup at the Northampton State Hospital, in the south-side solarium. Anna Schuleit, Habeas Corpus, 2000.

Fig. 3: Audio setup at the Northampton State Hospital, in the south-side solarium. Anna Schuleit, Habeas Corpus, 2000.

Bloom was a $175,000 project entirely funded by private donations—Schuleit created posters that were sold to contribute to the fundraising efforts (Fig. 4)—and executed by volunteers. The flowers and sod were brought to the site on trucks from Canada and the United States. On one level, Bloom constituted a visual protest—buds filling the space strained not only physically but also aesthetically against the jaded appearance of the building (Fig. 5). The blooms acted as a retroactive embodiment of absence, referencing their own nonexistence in psychiatric hospitals in the past. They mirrored the insertion of audience bodies into the space, highlighting the displaced bodies of the building’s original occupants. This reading of a materialization of absence was further encouraged by the recorded sounds of patients and staff echoing through the building. More subtly perhaps, the carpets of flowers and partly submerged furniture evoked ruins and relayed themes of abandonment and remembrance. Although not intended as a reprimand of past practices, the plants could also be read as a casual critique of the countless, oftentimes comically absurd, restrictions that barred flowers from psychiatric hospitals as potential weapons. As a performative extension of its protest, the flowers were donated to psychiatric hospitals, general hospitals, halfway houses, and homeless shelters at the conclusion of the project.[14]

Poster for Bloom, 2003.

Fig. 4: Anna Schuleit, poster for Bloom, 2003.

To an extent, Bloom’s deviation from the aforementioned memorials is the function of its dual status as both a commemorative tribute and a contemporary artwork. Its scale and visual prominence can be attributed to its goals of both respectful memorialization and artistic integrity. Far from creating a hermetic work informed by certain modernist tenets of aloofness and artistic autonomy, however, Schuleit married her vision to a certain practical sensibility—reflected in the plants’ afterlife in various hospitals—and sensitivity to Bloom’s navigation of memories. The work prioritized its audience by inviting anyone to enter and engage with the building’s story. By placing her work inside the MMHC, Schuleit literally brought the public and the accompanying dialogue into a less frequently traversed space—both the physical building and the issue of mental health care—and molded a semi-private place into a discursive public space.

Eschewing a narrow focus on mourning, Bloom was decidedly multivalent. In its integration of multiple voices in conversation, Bloom also exemplified what Young describes as the dialogic quality of memorial space. Expanding on this, Huyssen argues that the public dimension of the memorial is an antidote to monumental ossification.[15] Schuleit’s invitation to staff and patients to speak at a symposium and the inclusion of a public forum opened the space for dialogue between different perspectives. This interactive aspect of the dialogic space also counters the passive remembrance condemned by Whybrow. This can be read in terms of a system of “voice giving,” which Judith Baca describes as a way of navigating the creation of public memory in the face of a divergent audience.[16] Schuleit’s work acted as a conduit for the multiplicity of experiences which participants in the installation both contributed to and came into contact with. The dichotomy between producers and consumers of the past is thus blurred and the illusion of a singular voice shattered.

An engagement with loss and psychiatry’s past was inevitable in a former mental health facility. It is likewise difficult to sever this specific case of the MMHC from psychiatry’s troubled history. Mass Mental, as the building was lightheartedly and affectionately called by former staff members and even Schuleit, seems serendipitously revealing in this light. It draws unintended but revealing parallels between psychotic practices and mass production that speak of an impersonal, careless, or coarse brand of treatment. As a site-specific work, it was these fraught associations with which Bloom necessarily engaged.

Fig. 5: Anna Schuleit, Bloom, 2003.

Fig. 5:  Anna Schuleit, Bloom, 2003.

Nonetheless, the installation managed to avoid the moralizing and totalizing tendencies of the typical monument. In several interviews, Schuleit insisted that the work was simply about the absence of flowers in psychiatric hospitals. The flippancy of this modest explanation subverted any universal message. The work’s open-endedness played a central role in allowing agonistic narratives to play out in the memorial space. This was made possible largely by Bloom’s abstract aesthetic qualities—although in a sense the use of flowers was quite literal, its abstract qualities are brought into greater relief when juxtaposed with figurative war memorials featuring sculpted soldiers. Here, the debate between figuration and abstraction in memorial construction surfaces.

Young presents a convincing case against figuration, claiming that it can thwart multiple messages with its specificity and facilitate the entrenchment of an official history—the stories told by these memorials are often highly processed and politically motivated. At the same time, he recognizes the absurdity and sacrilege of a memorial that renders visitors’ quests for meaning futile with its indecipherability.[17] In a telling case, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., one of the earliest and most pivotal abstract war memorials, was eventually supplemented with a bronze statue of a group of soldiers just two years after its completion. Indeed the uproar over Lin’s abstract design seems to indicate that more literal representations may be needed as a vehicle for documentary and testimony. As I mentioned, Bloom’s abstract form was used in conjunction with the malleability of memory as a notion of possibility, a way of negotiating and accommodating multiple interpretations of a contested history. The addition of a didactic symposium and open forum suggested an awareness of the need for not only multiple voices but also multiple access points. In fusing different platforms of memorialization into a single tribute, Bloom also demonstrated an intertextuality that dissolved the fixity of the memorial itself.

The memorial is always engaged with the operation of time. On the surface, the two seem to work towards disparate ends, with time as an agent of distancing, burying, dispersing, and the memorial as an agent of recollection, retrieval, and constitution. Flipping this conception on its head, Young suggests that time mocks the rigidity of monuments. It ridicules the presumptuous claim that the durable materiality of the monument reflects an enduring, even eternal, truth.[18] Rather, the memorial is subject to the progression of time, and must continually interact with new contexts in the present. An unyielding fixedness in space thus renders a memorial archaic, irrelevant, and obsolete, sealing its death over time. Previously I designated Schuleit’s Bloom a tribute in reference to its distinctive and seemingly counterintuitive ephemerality—both the work and its site were dismantled four days after being opened to the public. The eventual negation of its form challenged the premise of the everlasting monument without neglecting its dedication to memory. It remarked upon the inevitable and essential evolution of memory itself over time while dissipating the illusion of permanence and immutability that marks the traditional monument.[19]

CONCLUSION

The themes of time and progression were made palpable when the new MMHC officially opened on January 31, 2012. In place of the old building, the Fenwood Road location now houses an updated 20,000 square-foot outpatient facility and transitional shelter and a 50,000 square-foot outpatient, research, and administrative building. A public/private partnership between Massachusetts, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), and the community organization Roxbury Tenants of Harvard (RTH) made the project possible and will surely introduce new dimensions to MMHC’s character. Part of the land will be subletted to the RTH for low-income residential developments and part of it will be used for the BWH’s new 360,000 square-foot clinical and research building.[20]As the dust settles at the new MMHC, it will be interesting to consider how Bloom—perhaps more so its legacy than its material remnants—has adapted to this new context and how it acted as a transition between past and current uses of the MMHC.

In presenting Bloom as a vanguard of new memorialization, I have been optimistic about its ability to accomplish the goals of memorialization while maneuvering the traps of the totalizing monument. Indeed, Bloom’s accessibility to the public, dismissal of a fixed singular message, and cultivation of a dialogic space showed a heightened sensitivity on Schuleit’s part to the work’s complex engagement with memory. However, I also feel the critical responsibility to present some caveats that exceed the scope of this paper. How a $175,000 project was justified in light of the many patients who suffered and continue to suffer from the effects of underfunded facilities is worth considering. Moreover, given the tendency of public art projects to act as cosmetic distractions for more sinister processes like gentrification and revitalization, it may be worthwhile to investigate how the strong aesthetic quality of Bloom may accidentally or even deliberately divert attention away from pressing issues surrounding the MMHC’s redevelopment.[21]

I recognize that issues of mental health, including the memorialization of its history, may not have the same cultural clout or resonance as its more prominent counterparts like war or disaster. It would be difficult for such memorializations to operate or find a robust audience in a completely unrelated public space. Given this fact, future memorialization of mental health history will likely remain within psychiatric institutions, as Bloom was, and will require similar strategies for speaking to the public from within these spaces.

In an effort to appear at the forefront of their practice, many mental health institutions are undergoing or, like the MMHC, have undergone redevelopments and facility updates. These moments of change correspond with an impulse to memorialize. As the contemporary mental health landscape continues to shift, the need for a new mode of memorialization sensitive to its engagement with divergent audiences and divergent memories emerges as an urgent concern.

*Gabriel Cheung is an artist and MA in Art History student at Queen’s University; his research focuses on critical spatial practices—projects that conflate art and architecture—as urban interventions. Presently, he is a member of the Turbines Curatorial Collective, a Kingston-based initiative that facilitates local performance art practices and dialogue among performance artists across North America. In addition to graphic design work and an independent art practice, he is also part of an artist collective—current projects explore the intersection of memory, diaspora, and itinerant identities through the production of “portable exile kits” informed by Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbauten.

[1] Bloom project website, “Bloom: A Project for the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.”

[2] For a broader discussion of current axioms of memory studies, see Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson, and Brian Ott, Places of Public Memory (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 5-11.

[3] Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York: Routledge, 1995), 3.

[4] Blair, Dickinson, and Ott use the term “memory places” to indicate geographically specific portions of space which function as memory apparatuses—for example, a museum, battlefield, or memorial as opposed to a story or photograph. In contrast, Nora’s term encompasses any “site of memory” in which memory is crystallized and from which it is excreted. Blair, Dickinson, and Ott, Places of Public Memory, 24.

[5] Blair, Dickinson, and Ott, Places of Public Memory, 24-28.

[6] James E. Young, The Texture of Meaning: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 3-4.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History (New York: Mcmillan, 1985), 17; for an elaboration of Huyssen’s use of ‘ossification,’ see Huyssen, Twilight Memories, 250.

[8]Blair, Dickinson, and Ott, Places of Public Memory, 6.

[9] Megan O’Toole, “Forgotten deceased mental health patients memorialized at newly named Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery,” National Post, July 29, 2012, http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/07/29/lakeshore-psychiatric-hospital-cemetery/.

[10] Mark Hume, “Giving dignity to the dead B.C. tried to hide from view,” The Globe and Mail, July 18, 2005, page A01; on the commemorative efforts at Danvers State Hospital, see the Danvers State Memorial Committee website http://dsmc.info/.

[11] “Danvers State Memorial Committee,” http://dsmc.info/.

[12] Nicolas Whybrow, “Berlin, Vienna: Performing Holocaust Memory,” in Art and the City (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2011), 145.

[13] The MMHC opened in 1912 as the result of a partnership between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Harvard Medical School. One of the oldest teaching hospitals in the United States, the institution served variably as a state mental health facility, a centre for academic psychiatry, and an outpatient care centre for discharged patients as well as the homeless mentally ill; for the history of the MMHC, see “Massachusetts Mental Health Centre,” http://www.mcdstudios.com/client/massmental/mmh_old_site/about/index.htm.

[14]Christopher Jobson, March 12, 2012, interview with Anna Schuleit, “Bloom: 28, 000 Potted Flowers Installed at the Massachusetts Mental Health Centre,” Colossal, http://www.thisiscolossal.com/bloom-28000-potted-flowers-installed-at-the-massachussetts-mental-health-centre/.

[15] Huyssen, Twilight Memories, 258.

[16] Judith F. Baca, “Whose Monument Where? Public Art in a Many-cultured Society,” in Mapping the Terrain, ed. Suzanne Lacy (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), 137.

[17] Young, The Texture of Memory, 10-11.

[18] James E. Young, “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 18, no. 2 (Winter, 1992): 294.

[19] Young, “The Counter-Monument,” 295.

[20] BWH Bulletin, February 3, 2012, “Doors Opened at Mass. Mental Health Center,” http://www.brighamandwomens.org/about_bwh/publicaffairs/news/publications/displaybulletin.aspx?articleid=5468; “Innovative Partnership Brings the Massachusetts Mental Health Center Back to the LMA,” MASCO, http://www.masco.org/news/sp-massachusetts_mental_health_center.

[21]Rosalyn Deutsche, “Uneven Development: Public Art in New York City,” October vol. 47 (Winter, 1988): 16.