Asylum

When I think “asylum,” I think of safety as in to “give asylum to.” Then I think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Jack Nicholson and its penetrating whites. And then I remember a documentary I saw as a film student at the University of Buffalo. Black & White (or just very subdued colors). Unfortunately, I don’t remember the documentary well enough to tell you its name or the name of its filmmaker.

What I remember most about the Christopher Payne photos I saw at the clic Bookstore & Gallery are the intensity of their colors and the clarity of their compositions. In his introduction to the Christopher’s book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, neurologist Oliver Sacks says Christopher’s photos: “evoke for me not only the tumultuous life of such places, but the protected and special atmosphere they offered.”

There is “the tumultuous life” captured in his photos. Abandoned rooms, disheveled – a flood of indistinguishable brown file boxes tied with string that had not yet receded, chairs stacked into a busted accordion, cracked walls and chipped paint depicting a ghostly apparition fading from one world to the next.

And there is “the protected” expressed in the orderly manner Christopher has arranged the objects with his lens. Beneath the pictured disorder and decay is a powerful symmetry whose contradiction works to send a potentially interesting message to viewers. That message Oliver sends in his introduction: “not only the tumultuous life of such places, but the protected and special atmosphere they offered.”

Are you familiar with “ordered chaos”? The theory that the introduction of disorder creates order. The 2006 issue of Science Daily gives the example of scientists experimenting with several pendulums –

researchers noticed that when driven by ordered forces the various pendulums behaved chaotically and swung out of sync… But then came the real surprise: When they introduced disorder — forces were applied at random to each oscillator — the system became ordered and synchronized.

That’s what Christopher has done with his camera. He has ordered the chaos. In my favorite photo – File Boxes, Spring Grove State Hospital, Maryland – it’s the one of the room flooded by plain brown file boxes tied with string. Its walls, a shower of cracked and peeling paint that conjure thoughts of veins and the nervous system – he gives the chaos of the abandoned room a symmetry of color and light to produce a surreal image whose single doorway might tell a story about thresholds.

Click Here for a slideshow of some of the photos from Christopher’s book. His photos are on display at the clic Bookstore & Gallery (255 Centre Street, NYC) through May 23, 2010. I highly recommend seeing the photographs in person. While the reprints on the Internet and in the book are good, the size of the prints makes a dramatic and powerful statement. The size of the photos allow the viewer to get closer and examine the minutest declarations by the artwork. 

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