Earlier this week I headed to the edge of Shirley to visit Bethlem gallery and museum. The listed deco building that the two organisations share sits within the sizable grounds of Bethlem Royal Hospital – the grounds are directly adjacent to Croydon’s border but are nestled in our neighbouring borough of Bromley. Although I’ve passed the hospital many many times and had been aware of a gallery space and art programme there for a few years, this was my first visit, after receiving an invite to the gallery’s private view of ‘Being Present’.
The gallery, which has a mission to make art an everyday practice and mental health an everyday conversation, resides in two spaces on the ground floor of the building. When I arrived I was greeted by the gallery staff as well as several of the artists exhibiting.
‘Being Present’ is a collaborative show between artists from Bethlem Gallery and Primary in Nottingham. Artists linked to the organisations paired up over a two-year period spanning the Covid lockdowns to create work together.
The artists’ outcomes are of course diverse in style, but also insightful and surprising. The first piece I encountered was by Frank Abbott and Mr X. A joyful multi-colour installation, the colours and lettering reminded me of Bob and Roberta Smith’s work. The phrase ‘Something amazing will happen’ was cut into discarded household boxes and containers and lit from within. When I went inside the vibrant construction, which felt a bit like a DIY spacecraft, I encountered a video which was screening a performance using similar lettered containers but being pulled along like a train – the performance was mesmerising to watch, especially from the interior of the otherworldly installation.
After this piece I spied the wall collages of Fatma Durmush and Jo Wheeler – an interesting and aesthetically pleasing juxtaposition of photography and painting.
For me, probably the most alluring work in the gallery were the translucent towers of tiny people created by Courtney who was working in collaboration with Roger Suckling. I found it fascinating examining all the different people seemingly trapped together under the surfaces of these artworks – was it conveying transparency and community, or being trapped in a certain time, or both?
After viewing all the displayed pieces, I was fortunate to be in the gallery for a performance by artists Michelle Baharier and Chris Lewis-Jones. ‘Teatime Presence’ explored the importance of the great British tea break, and required some audience participation – that’s all I’ll say.
Whilst visiting Bethlem I also got the chance to pop by the museum, or to give its full title, Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which sits on the first floor of the building over three spaces, accessed by a rather grand staircase. I only managed to take in a portion of the museum during my visit, which includes a gallery for rotating exhibitions. The archive space was designed in an extremely engaging and interactive way and takes the visitor on a journey of Bethlem’s controversial history through the lens of mental health. And yes, the term ‘Bedlam’ is a variant of the hospital’s name from its early days in the 1200s, when mental health care was synonymous with chaos.
The museum felt like a compact cousin of London’s Wellcome Collection, and I’ll definitely be back to learn more.
Both the gallery and museum are open to the public for free, 9.30am–5pm, Wednesday to Saturday (and the public are also welcome to take a stroll in the beautiful 240 acres of surrounding grounds). ‘Being Present’ at Bethlem Gallery is on until 13 May 2023. Check out their website for more details as well as other upcoming exhibitions this year, and take a look at the museum website for more on their collection.
If you’re planning your visit from the centre of Croydon you can catch the 119 bus towards Bromley or 198 towards Shrublands from East Croydon Station. If you’re driving, there’s free parking on site. A hidden gem or the borders of Croydon and Bromley.
Images by the Croydonist
Posted by Julia