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Benevolent Asylum: an eclipse of historical fiction
Benevolent Asylum Forum: Saturday 4 June, 2010
and Take Me In, live performance series
Fremantle Arts Centre, 2010
Download PDF programme (7.2MB)
Benevolent Asylum was prompted by the discovery of the razed site of The Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, once the most prominent building in North Melbourne, where I have lived for 11 years. Established in 1851, the Asylum was abandoned in 1900 and finally demolished in 1912.
The exhibition at Fremantle Arts Centre is the result of an encounter with the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, which sparked an examination of asylum institutions as an archetype of care and confinement in Australia. Benevolent Asylum has evolved over three years, with research across Australia and Europe, to look at the origins of institutional confinement and birth of the circumstance in which state care and incarceration are inseparable.This work has revealed that originary models still profoundly influence Australia’s chief institutions of confinement and punitive detention. In Fremantle, for instance, convict labour transported to Tasmania from London’s Millbank and Pentonville prisons brought with it the Solitary System and a penology of relentless isolation and labour. Replicated across the colony in the mid-19th century, Model Prisons were established at Fremantle, Port Arthur, Adelaide Gaol and at Pentridge in Melbourne. Inmates in this system spent 12 hours labour and 23 hours a day in 2 x 3 metre cells.
Tourism at former prison sites promotes the idea that this is a ‘dark’ history, which our institutions have left well behind, and that such harsh treatment borders on fiction. This is simply another radical forgetting. Confinement operates in precisely the same way in our asylums, prisons and detention centres today. And solitary incarceration is the prevailing public secret of Australian punishment: denial of the practice is so obvious that everything is done to avoid recognising it.
photos: Christine Tomas
Benevolent Asylum features scaffolding, ramps and lighting to create the twofold setting of a ship and a stage. Part performance environment and part video installation, the exhibition in Gallery One is primarily a theatrical site for the unfolding of a story of exile, transportation and confinement. This is presented, firstly, in the gallery via a series of documentary videos and in the printed programme, and, secondly, through the performance of Take me in over four nights in June 2011.
Dominating the space is a scaffold structure with several tiers. A low, wedged platform sits at the centre of the room and an overhead cable and pulley system runs from the scaffolding to a mast. Sails, ropes, props and a profile light are scattered around the space. And a big circular screen features a video of an eclipse. Enlarged black and white posters of images from archives and from the artist’s site research are pasted up on big black plywood boards. A series of reclaimed television monitors are situated amid the scaffold and on other objects throughout the room. These play a collection of short documentary-style, subtitled videos that examine the history of institutional confinement in western civilisation.
Video still, Forget about it, filmed at Hôpital St Lazare, Paris and Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) 2009
Made over a three year period, the films weave narrative and site-based research in order to expose the roots of ongoing practices of solitary confinement in Australia’s prisons, detention centres and asylums. Videos range from guided tours, site visits and stories from local Fremantle archives, including the Prison, Round House and former Lunatic Asylum at the Arts Centre itself, plus footage of Rottnest Island. Other histories are told, like that of Goodna’s lunatic asylum on the upper reaches of the Brisbane River, the Benevolent Asylum on Queensland’s Stradbroke Island, as well as the former Female Factory and Norma Parker Women’s Detention Centre at Parramatta. Footage taken of London’s Millbank and Pentonville Prison sites and at the prison-hospitals of Paris, reveal the parallel history of these institutions.
Benevolent Asylum Forum: Saturday 4 June
Fremantle Arts Centre
History isn’t was. History is. No matter how much we wipe our feet at the front door, we track history through the house. Leaving its muddy footprints all over the carpet.
Phillip Adams, ‘History is now, not later’, The Weekend Australian, July 21-22, 2001.
Imagine history as an active and shared practice that belongs to the whole community. How can we foster a culture committed to this vision? And how, moreover, can we deal with tourism and historical forgetting, questions of preservation or participation at significant sites, and the continuation of covert practices like solitary confinement? There are many ways that art might be instrumental in helping Australians to comprehend the past. Benevolent Asylum raises these questions in order to engender a collective future for how these histories might unfold. The Benevolent Asylum forum sought to foster an environment in which these issues might be discussed across a wide range of perspectives.
Artists, filmmakers, historians, prison counsellors, psychiatrists, educators, activists and concerned members of the local community gathered in the Benevolent Asylum exhibition space and over three hours this group of more than fifty people conducted an open yet intensive discussion with the artist and invited commentators concerning notions of asylum, the history of confinement and the relationship between historical research and creativity.
Photo: Christine Tomas
Benevolent Asylum Take Me In: Live Performance Season
Thu 2, Fri 3, Thu 9, Fri 10 June, 7pm
Featuring actors Siobhan Dow-Jones (Bea) and Allan Girod (Ward)
Photos: Christine Tomas
Take Me In is the historic tale of two inmates as they travel from the Thames to the Swan and their sancturary in a Benevolent Asylum. Drawing on historic sources, Take Me In has currency in today’s prison system and detention centres. Music, humour and a dynamic set weave a narrative around the audience.