Monday, January 23, 2017

Weaving art inside 'madness'


As a young man of twenty four, Angus MacPhee left his home on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides to go to war. He was a member of Lovat's Scouts and was posted in 1940 to occupy and protect the Faeroe Isles. He did not see combat because, before the Lovats fought in Italy, Angus had succumbed to what was diagnosed as 'simple schizophrenia'. This form of schizophrenia presents all the passive symptoms without the accompanying, more familiar, active ones. It debilitates rather than excites, saps rather than disturbs. After a brief spell at home, he found himself in a mental asylum near Inverness.

Unlike the subsequent crafted images of such places, popularised in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest', this was an institution of benign care where the continuing mysteries of mental illness were addressed with the limited techniques at hand broadly in an environment of safety. In Angus' case, it was an environment enhanced by its ownership of a farm on which he worked and where he cared for the animals, especially the horses, that he loved.

He would have remained unknown to the wider world if it had not been for his compulsive attachment to creating things either from woven grass or fragments of wool taken from fences and woven into objects both recognisable and exaggerated, often with humour, like the woven grass boots (above) for an eight foot tall occupant!

His work, especially with grass, was ephemeral and he appeared not to care - what mattered to him was the making - that it subsequently faded and indeed was often destroyed or folded into compost, mattered not.

Had it not been noticed by the pioneering art therapist and collector of 'outsider' art, Joyce Laing, it would have all disappeared.

Roger Hutchinson's 'The Silent Weaver: The Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus MacPhee' tells the story of Angus' life and explores the questions to which it gives rise. He shows how Angus' choice of method was rooted in the culture and work of his homeland - horse bridles in Uist were often, for example, woven from the marram grass that lines the island's shores. He asks whether an 'artist' must be consciously so (and create for an audience) or can he simply 'unconsciously' be a maker as appeared to be the case with Angus and with many other makers of 'outsider art'? This he places in the history of the growth of interest in such art and its challenge to the assumptions that underlie 'the arts'. He touches on the continually vexed question of the relationship between creativity and madness. He, also, touches on the story of mental health care in twentieth century Britain and how the much maligned asylum might have, in truth, often have deserved its name.

It ends beautifully in a meditation that they may be something about the nature of the Celtic art tradition that resonates throughout MacPhee's work - quoting Renan, Matthew Arnold and Yeats to good effect. That it carries within itself a love of nature for itself, in its very materiality and ephemerality. Nature is something mysterious that you abide in and navigate, not something you simply admire from a distance. It breathes you, you play and work in it, it ever changes - and like MacPhee's workings decays to take on new forms.

In this, it reminds me of the Chinese - and the wonderful story of the poet who inscribed their work on leaves so that the wind could carry them up, away, and ultimately dissolve them back into the substances from which they continually emerge.

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