Order/Disorder: Essay by Isabelle Osborne

Paper Mountain - August 11, 2017

In this essay, artist Isabelle Osborne discusses her work Order/Disorder – an investigation into re-presenting mental illness through experimental photography.

Order/Disorder aims to re-present mental illness outside of hegemonic, often stigmatized discourses put forth by science, popular culture and the arts.

This practice-led research identifies that the current consensus within western scientific and cultural views towards mental illness, is that it is an undesirable adjunct of mental health. In this light, mental illness fails to comply with a suggested notion of ‘normality’ and ‘health’. Order/Disorder subsequently employs experimental analogue photography to pictorially re-present mental illness in order to depart from these discourses. Broadly, these experimental processes can be classified as either environmental or chemical, and are designed to reflect the interplay of nature and nurture as aspects of mental illness and an individual’s innate qualities.

One significant aspect of this experimentation involves exposing photographic material to the pharmaceutical compounds used to treat Bipolar Affective Disorder. In this regard the photographic material becomes an analogue for the human mind where the efficacy of mood stabilising, anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs can be explored visually and poetically. The results are abstract, ambiguous and emotive images that I interpret through a perceptive viewpoint which seeks ‘beauty’ in obscurantism – suggested in qualities such as humility, asymmetry, imperfection, and transience. Rather than deem these irregularities as photographic flaws, or qualities that require ‘treatment’ and fixing, I suggest they are profound and unique formations that demand foregrounding.

Inspired by the diagnosis of Bipolar within my personal family context, much of the impetus behind this visual work comes from the direct experience of negative assumptions, misinformation, judgement, and misunderstanding towards individuals with what is medically classified as mental ‘illness’. In an attempt to challenge society’s hierarchy of truth and normality, whereby the mentally ill are presented as failing to conform with the strictures of normality, this work suggests that difference does not equate to failure. Rather, that the flaw equates to obscure beauty. I hope to diminish the mentality of us versus them reinforced through western diagnostic texts (i.e. DSM-IV 2000; ICD-10 1992) and the oversaturation of negative pictorial representations in popular culture which has historically lead to wide-scale and deep-rooted stigmatization.

Central to this visual practice is a process that analogously links materials to the mind. Like the minds of individuals, analogue photographic material is shaped by the chemical and environmental factors it is subjected or exposed to. Through practice, the internal processes and reactions become tangible to the visible exterior. Importantly however, the results of this can be witnessed visually as opposed to individual subjective interpretation of the ‘patient’.

Order/Disorder attempts to dissolve the binary opposition of madness vs normality, or rather, the myth of a dualistic reality. Rather than comply with the utterances of illness, the research examines a space in-between these extremes where the ‘flaw’ can be read as something else. The importance of the flaw in this way, is that it aims not to shock, repulse or deter the viewer, but rather to captivate and fascinate the eye. Rather than drawing on the peculiarity of ambiguity in a way of presenting difference in light of failure, the ‘fearful unknown’ or freakishness – this work can be seen as allowing for this ‘beauty’ and intrigue in strangeness. In this regard the research has made new insights into mental illness available.

On a personal level, the crux of my research — a desire to suggest that there is not necessarily ‘truth’ in duality, but rather, there is interconnectedness between all things – has been affirmed. Between materials and the mind, the ‘normal’ and mentally ‘ill’, you and I. There is ambiguity and non-truths present in all facets of life. Hoping to go beyond certain stigmatised discourses, I feel this work can suggest that, seeing through a sympathetic mind-set — acknowledging the abnormalities, flaws and impermanence as part of reality — that we can redefine normality, perfection and worth.

Order/Disorder aims to question what we know, think, see and say to be normal. It aims to seek beauty in obscurantism and question the idea of the ‘flaw’. Mental health is but a performance. As put by Petteri Pietikainen in his text ‘Madness’:

Behind psychological definitions, medical diagnoses and social labels there is a whole kaleidoscope of human experience — all possible variations of normality and deviance, familiarity and strangeness. In a mode of thinking that emphasises the unity of human nature, madness is not so much otherness as sameness, even if a somewhat exaggerated and unusual kind of sameness (Pietikainen 2015, 1).

Isabelle Osborne

Order/Disorder exhibits 12 – 27 August 2017 at Paper Mountain.

Image: Isabelle Osborne, Order / Disorder 093 (anti-psychotic) (detail), 2016, archival inkjet print. 39cm x 61cm.