Peter D Kramer

In Practice

Culture Watch: Random Booknotes

Seeing the mentally ill through the things they left behind.

Posted Mar 25, 2008

Unless a patient commits a horrific crime, severe and persistent mental illness is a topic the press ignores. A book review in today’s Science Times is a welcome exception. It introduces readers to The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, written by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny and illustrated by photographer Lisa Rinzler.

The book, like the traveling museum exhibit that explores the same material, uses significant objects—steamer trunks, furniture, clothing, photographs, official documents, newspaper articles—to evoke the grim lives of long-term patients at the Willard State Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region of New York. I know The Lives They Left Behind only through its on-line representation. It can be contentious, in the fashion critiqued by Susan Sontag in On Photography: images that seem to "speak for themselves" have, in practice, been curated with quite specific intentions. But the implicit points, about the dignity and indignities of the suffering and about the shortcomings of governmental and medical establishments, are powerfully conveyed.

At the other end of the "signifying" continuum is a book currently on display at the National Gallery of Art. Traces suspectes en surfaces—the title has been translated literally as Suspicious Marks On The Surface and loosely as Things Are Not What They Seem—is the result of a multiyear effort in the early 1970s by the late Alain Robbe-Grillet and Robert Rauschenberg. Robbe-Grillet composed the text and transcribed it in his own handwriting onto on lithography stones decorated by Rauschenberg. (In contemporary interviews, Robbe-Grillet speaks also of writing on engraving plates and using photographic reproduction; perhaps multiple techniques were employed.) The apparent intention is for sentences and images to evade the reader’s or viewer’s grasp. I had not known of the collaboration but came across it in the exhibit “Let the World In.” Odd, to discover new (to me) work of Robbe-Grillet’s so soon after his death. I assume that the whole of the brief novel is opaque, but the main page open in the museum is poetic and instantly evocative of its time, a moment in which artists used playfulness and absurdity as forms of protest against authority. The New Novel has received its share of scorn, but like the effort to let artifacts speak, the attempt to have words and objects resist meaning remains, in its own way, moving and political.

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