Personal Effects: a History of Possession, is a work, now in process, that has grown out of an engagement with the personal effects of past patients from The Richmond Asylum – later known as St Brendans Hospital, – in Grangegorman, not far from the heart of Ireland’s capital city, Dublin. Given the provenance of these personal possessions the title should also be read to include the meaning of the effects of institutional care upon the person.
The trove of personal posessions, or effects, was discovered during the retrieval of the institution’s bound archival records from the attic of a disused hospital building. That discovery coincided with the making of a film documentary, Behind the Walls, by the late Mary Raftery, which explored the history of Ireland’s mental hospitals in the 20th century. It was by means of this documentary, first broadcast in 2011, that I learned of the existence of these personal posessions and, deeply moved by their discovery, why I set out to successfully locate them.
For the past two and a half years I have, alongside members of the Grangegorman Community Museum and under the guidance of the National Archives, sorted through the mountains of loose paper records that were also retrieved in the hospital’s attics. In the process I have made a selection of memorabilia, correspondence and documents for which I have received permission from the Health Service Executive to develop a response both as an artist and as a citizen.
Some of these posessions have been used to create a work of art that has at its core the histories of anonymous persons who lived, and were cared for, within the institution of the hospital. Given their context these possessions are charged objects yet with little of the strange to be found among them. They are of the everyday, suggestive of inner lives no less rich nor remarkable than our own and revelatory of stories as much about ourselves as about their owners.
These possessions offer a remarkable trove of material for social research and artistic engagement and provide a rare opportunity for honest and truthful exploration of the complex nature of human being. The art installation, Personal Effects: a History of Possession, has been created in response not only to the possessions discovered within the hospital complex but also to their possessors who were in turn possessed by the institution for the duration of their care. The work also responds to the official archival records of the Richmond Asylum, (St Brendan’s Hospital) and to the history of institutional care for the mentally ill in Ireland as a whole. It is a goal of the work to allow an imagination of life – both within and without the institutions – as “others” might have experienced it. It is in our ability to imagine lives other than our own that our compassion, or lack of it, is rooted. A great cultural richness is to be found within this material that might tell us much about ourselves and about our society.
There have been three exhibitions of the installation in Dublin during 2014. The first took place in The Long Stores of Grangegorman Mental Hospital during Phizzfest, 2014. In June the work was shown in Culture Box, Temple Bar and in August it was installed in the theatre of the Axis Centre, Ballymun. A radio documentary is presently in development for the DOConOne series with the national broadcast station, RTE. Further details in Posts on this website.