During the 1980s the Bolingbroke Hospital in Wandsworth started a reminiscence programme to trigger memories of their elderly patients. Objects, fashions of the time, music, photographs and film were all used in order to help patients maintain good mental health. The hospital went on to became a centre of geriatric excellence before closing in 2008 (happily the acute elderly health service is still thriving in St George’s in Tooting).
The Bolingbroke Hospital: a view backwards focuses on new work by three artists – Julie Arkell, Penelope Batley and Shelly Goldsmith – who in 2009 were given some ‘reminiscence objects’ from the hospital. Simultaneously, photographer Jason Oddy was asked to take photographs of the closed hospital and the work by Arkell, Batley and Goldsmiths is presented alongside these images.
Shelly Goldsmith’s work is represented by a series of pieces using black and white name tape and a series of photographs of garments.
The name tape pieces were inspired by neatly labelled storage spaces that Shelly encountered during a visit to the hospital. I immediately think of school uniforms when I see this tape however its use to explore identity and memory is made acute by Goldsmith’s entry in the catalogue. She tells of a friend of hers who recently sewed her mother’s name into all her belongings in advance of her entering a care home.
The photographs of reclaimed textile pieces include a striking blue dress with a blood-red stain covering the heart of the dress, an elaborate wedding veil on a black background and the above blouse.
Penelope Batley’s pieces centre around a number of glass lanterns that used to be in the hospital (as seen in one of Jason Oddy’s photographs). Shiny copper piping turns around imaginary corners to create labyrinth-like shapes incorporating these lanterns in a series of ceiling lights and floor pieces. For Batley the piping celebrates the arterial plumbing and electrical systems of a municipal structure and the lanterns represent the luminescent spirits of those cared for at the hospital.
Julie Arkell is best known for her papier-mâché figures. Here they carry snippets of text found amongst paraphernalia collected up at the hospital. The little figures are guardian-like and bear requests such as ‘please pray for all those in this hospital. Many thanks’. One piece I found very moving was a knitted pixie hood made from a pattern found at the hospital. Clearly made for a small child its shape hints at its post-war age and in turn, the history of the hospital.
The overriding feeling of absence is made explicit in Jason Oddy’s photographs of the empty hospital rooms and corridors.
The whole exhibition presents things once worn, rooms once sat in and lives once lived. For me the pieces all evoked a tender sadness summed up in one of Arkell’s embroidered handkerchiefs ‘you were so there and now you’re gone.’
- In three words: life once lived
The Bolingbroke Hospital: a view backwards, Contemporary Applied Arts, 2 Percy Street, 15 June to 21 July