The Cuckoo Trail
The Cuckoo Trail is a series of photographs portraying the environment that housed madness from the late Nineteenth Century until the early 1990’s. Lewis’s images are a meditative response to an environmental discourse that was thought would control and aid in the treatment of insanity.
The anodyne pastel colours that were supposed to lend a gentle, pacifying air to the institution now peel off the walls. Shards and scraps of crinkled house paint collect in flaky piles on the floor. Doors are ajar, opening onto views down the corridors along which patients were once led, and into the rooms in which they were once confined. The old asylums have long been disused, and their empty spaces, presented with an intense psychological charge by Lloyd Lewis, bristle with a disturbing and disquietening tension. Past experience, of which these dilapidated shells become repositories, is here evoked by what Kant called ‘negative presentation.’ Used to powerful and traumatic effect at the sites of Nazi concentration camps, and mobilised by artists such as Christian Boltanski and Joseph Beuys, scarred and impoverished objects reference personal traces and absent victims. Lewis presents these wasted remnants of 19th century disciplinary institutions, distressed and abandoned, as physical instantiations of an oppressive and frequently cruel medical discourse which still haunts contemporary dealings with the mentally ill.
The enclosed community of the asylum complex has over time been shrouded in secrecy, with little public access and cultural knowledge the institutions are surrounded by a social phobia. With the appearance more related to that of a hill top town these isolated institutions became truly autonomous organisms, self contained communities living on the outskirts of society, the events and housing of the insane could be controlled and influenced within the walls of the asylum, containing madness away from public view. Lewis’s photographs offer an insight into a world society wishes to negate, originally built for the dichotomy of incarceration and care the asylums are gradually being erased from public knowledge, standing dormant since the rationalization of the National Health Service in the 1980’s many have been demolished whilst the few that still stand have been left in a state of timelessness, boarded and secured by the authorities the only way to experience these archaic structures is to enter via illegal means. Their hidden meaning has been lost, the social theories of the time do not apply in today’s psychiatric reasoning and the buildings original purpose and concept has little relevance in modern society, this dissociation is today reflected in the asylums apparent uselessness and ultimate derelict state.
Role specific disciplinary institutions of this kind offer an oppressive and frequently cruel medical discourse, through metonymy the asylum has become synonymous with its subject, a message that Lewis has translated photographically through the environmental discourse of institutional madness.
Lewis has chosen to conduct this series of images in an environment where control and order were the underlying factors, during the early conception of treatment for lunacy the architecture used to house it was seen as an important influencing factor in the route to curing the disease, the asylum was to reflect sanity onto its patients by ordering the mind and controlling actions and events, in doing so it was to absorb madness and return the lunatic to sanity. The asylum architecture became a therapeutic tool, an instrument used to influence the user through its design discourse and spacial milieu. What Lewis is addressing in this environment is how architecture of this kind can be seen to have a process of communication, by concentrating on the interior environment Lewis is able to translate this ambiguous message through his photographic language, conveying memory and trace, confinement and confusion, highlighting the events that were never seen, reading the environment to translate the message, a message that has been inscribed in the architecture of the asylum.
By blurring the division between found evidence and constructed performance, by bridging the gap between the documentary and the fictional, Lewis subtly alters and arranges these interiors in an attempt to convey this ambiguous message. Through subtle alterations, by combining found objects within the interior landscape Lewis produces an ambiguity that hints at the psychological aspect of his subject. Through this metaphorical language these factors introduce an uncanny and abstract quality to the photographs, something that bridges the gap between the dialect of the subject and the concept of memory. Lewis addresses the haunting interior spaces of the neglected asylum to emphasis this psychologically loaded environment, highlighting the confusion that the interiors were once witness to, the images hint at the events that were never seen, resonating the former occupation of patients that were ultimately controlled and influenced by this archaic environment.