‘Maybe It’s The World That’s Mad’ is the result of a partnership between Mad Pride Hull and Artlink, supported by local arts organisation Ground bringing a survivor community together in a bid to celebrate difference. Review by Gill Crawshaw
Banners are a compelling way to communicate. They can carry messages of protest or resistance, but are as often about identity, pride and justice. The banners at the centre of the exhibition Maybe It’s the World That’s Mad are as powerful on the gallery walls as they must have been when carried in a local community parade last summer.
Setting out to explore what it means for communities to talk about mental health, and to celebrate differences, the programme of exhibition and workshops also asks the audience “to consider the madness of today’s world, its systems, structures and imposed stress that affect our mental well-being; and to reflect on how this might be different.”
These are ambitious, wide ranging aims for an exhibition in a small gallery. While there are a relatively small number of works on show, the aims are achieved through large scale pieces that are rich in detail. It’s clear that the exhibition has had input from a wide range of people and organisations, working in collaboration with artists Mathias Tornvig, Ella Dorton, Lilly Williams and Mike Sprout. Different groups and communities have therefore taken different approaches to the exhibition’s themes of keeping mentally healthy in a mad world.
This is particularly true of the four elaborate banners on show, which range from statements of solidarity and unity to demands for justice and respect. In Feeling Squished?, the Orts sewing group has used lighthearted language but their main message is “together we are stronger”. People at Selby Street Mission assert their identities in We Are Not, We Are as “artists, hopers, prophets and jokers”, rather than “scroungers, numbers, drones or clones”.
Similarly, the Solidarity Group, young adults who have come to Hull from countries around the world, show a figure fighting off the language of prejudice and ignorance in Your Words Hurt Me. St Nicholas Primary School pupils show us What’s In My Head? We find a joyful riot of fantastical creatures, winged animals, unicorns and teddy bears!
Another mysterious creature lies across the middle of the gallery. Wild Thing: A Fish on Land is an installation that, despite a fearsome outward appearance, offers comfort and shelter from the world – crawl in and sit inside. It’s a thing of contradictions. Does this ‘wild thing’ ask us to think about how we judge others, or about where we feel safe?
Dominating one side of the gallery is the Chaos Office, which throws the idea of a neat, productive office environment into the air – perhaps literally, by the look of it! Visitors are invited to get stuck in and bring order, or further disorder, to this office. If you can find them, there are desks buried beneath post-it notes, clipboards and time sheets. The uniforms are lab coats and curly wigs. Charity shop paintings have been upgraded with motivational or ominous statements to unsettling effect (“The office is omnipresent”).
Chaos Office is an activity that is re-created regularly at Ground’s community centre. I can understand how it has become an effective space for people to explore issues around team-working, power dynamics and productivity, and for talking about stress and how to avoid it. It’s playful and engaging, but at the same time questions accepted ways of doing things and suggests that things could be done differently. On the day I visited I found the space welcoming and quite calm, although I can imagine the energy levels rising when more people visit together and take on different roles.
Somehow the disparate elements of Maybe It’s the World That’s Mad come together to communicate different ideas relating to mental health. Serious messages are often delivered with a light touch. This exhibition is most effective where fun and playfulness are used to reflect communities’ voices. This refreshing approach supports the celebration of difference that Mad Pride is all about.