In his 2014 book Art as Therapy, philosopher Alain de Botton postulates that visual art can offer us solace, hope and reassurance, in the same way music has long been thought to do. “The point of art in general is to offer therapeutic assistance,” he writes, “It should help us to better endure and enjoy our lives.” It is from this perspective that long-time friends and collaborators – curator Niamh White and artist Tim A Shaw – started Hospital Rooms, an innovative new public art initiative that seeks to bring museum quality art to psychiatric wards, communal spaces and outpatient areas in hospitals across the UK. The idea came about after Tim visited a good friend who had recently been sectioned. “It seemed like such an unpleasant environment in which to recuperate,” he says of the mental health facility in London. “If you are physically, mentally and emotionally unwell, you need an environment that is conducive to recovery.” And so, the duo decided to combine their art world experience and expertise. “We realised we had the skills needed to change an environment, so we said: why not tackle a very different environment?” Working in collaboration with South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, and with the support of the Arts Council, the first Hospital Rooms project launched earlier this month at The Phoenix Unit, a secure residential ward for patients with schizophrenia at Springfield University Hospital in Tooting. Hospital Rooms commissioned contemporary artists and photographers, including Turner Prize winners Assemble and SHOWstudio’s Nick Knight, to refurbish the unit with site specific installations – meaning the works cannot be removed and sold – that will remain at the unit indefinitely.
Each artist was allocated a space or room and worked closely with the hospital’s residents, clinicians, consultants and occupational therapists to develop their installation. The aim was never to simply place art on the walls, but rather, to engage residents and staff in the initiative, encourage them to develop their own artistic practices and help instil in them an overall sense of pride in their environment. Most residents remain on the ward for between 18 months and three years. “It’s their home,” says Niamh, “so before the project we regularly visited the unit and chatted with [the residents] to find out what they would like to see and what would be meaningful for them. That was a really important time – we got a lot of feedback and learnt so much.” The result is a visual mish-mash of high–level contemporary art, with the ocular style of each of the ten spaces encapsulating a different function and purpose. Before the project, all the rooms were identical, now each tells its own story. Gavin Turk’s graphic ‘egg’ vinyl motif (symbolising infinity) and Duck Egg Blue painted walls in the Resource room contrast with Aimee Parrott’s soft, warm Matisse inspired mural in the Women’s Lounge.
“Some of the most creative and accomplished people that I have known have encountered difficulty with their mental health at one stage or another”, says photographer Nick Knight. “I've been to a few environments like the Phoenix Unit and they feel disturbingly bleak. Our environments are so important to our well-being. This was a rare chance to help stop them being the sterile, harsh environments I know them to be." The response to Hospital Rooms has been overwhelmingly positive, from the ward’s residents to the artists themselves and the art world beyond. "I think the new design is changing the way we all live our lives on the ward”, says Will, a resident at the Phoenix Unit. “The art has given us all a new way to start conversations with each other and things already seem so much better." The long-term aim is to introduce the initiative to NHS hospitals across the UK. “This is something we would like to see become a governmental agenda,” says Tim. “These places are really functional, so domesticity and comfort are not the first considerations, but we’re trying to bring that conversation up and ask, how can environments be therapeutic?”
A collection of artwork made by the Phoenix Unit service users during Hospital Rooms workshops will be exhibited from the 30th of June until 12th July at Griffin Gallery, 21 Evesham Street, London, W11 4AJ.