A celebration of individuality and humanity

Alina Ivan visits Switching Perceptions at the Bethlem Gallery in London.

01 March 2019

Artist Eleanor Minney, in collaboration with Professor Liz Tunbridge, geneticist and psychiatrist, and patients from the National Psychosis Unit at the Bethlem Hospital, give shape to the concept of ‘self’. They do so in the context of mental health and human genetic make-up, offering a distinct and multidisciplinary take on what defines one’s inner life. 

A highlight of Switching Perceptions is ‘Segment of aself’. Laid across the room, the immaculate four-metre textile features hand-drawn representations of life vignettes. Friendship, wellness and illness, spirituality are all laid out in careful detail. Sewed firmly to the back, a similar sized textile holds rows and rows of square-shaped genetic markers. Three subtle red threads drape loosely, gently marking three of the genes that Dr Tunbridge has identified as being linked to psychosis. 

The piece gives viewers a sense of proportion, inviting reflection on the extent to which genes linked to mental illness define one’s life experience. Treatment forms a part of the whole, but equally important are the other elements of life depicted, which are largely relatable to visitors. The piece seems to marry the scientific and experiential perspectives of mental health, inviting one to ask themselves whether the mind and the brain are one and the same. ‘I don’t conceptualise those two things as being terribly separate’, Dr Tunbridge remarks in conversation with Eleanor Minney, who feels that the mind spans more than ‘this life and this brain’. 

The exhibition is also dotted with outstanding works of patients resulted from the Think Tank, an initiative where the artist worked with patients to explore the notion of self. One can see rich, beautiful diagrams of cut out words – fragmented narratives – which have informed the exhibition’s curation.

Fresh and thorough, the exhibition offers a visual expression of how the variety in the human genome can give rise to individual differences. It appears to be a celebration of both individuality and humanity, as much as it is a contemplation of essential philosophical questions. 

The works are on display at the Bethlem Gallery until 30 March

- Reviewed by Alina Ivan, a psychology postgraduate and research assistant working on the RADAR study at King’s College London.