Li is a site specific installation that responds to the unique social and institutional histories of the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, formerly the Bundoora Repatriation Mental Hospital.
The installation will be presented at Bundoora Homestead Art Centre from 13 January 2021. In the interim we are pleased to present this suite of sketches for Li alongside a commissioned text by arts writer Zara Sigglekow.
Words by Zara Sigglekow
And does not everything in this world contain a portion of its opposite —comedy in tragedy, cruelty in laughter — and where its antithesis can become its counterpart? Even the development of medicine contains pockets of cruelty. Here, the patient, stripped of their personhood, is seen as an assemblage of cells, blood, bone, organs, and hormones, connections and chain reactions, a machine that is broken and must be fixed. Sacrifices are made for the ‘greater good’, as animals die painful deaths and clinical trials reveal painful side-effects. To be cared for is to be made vulnerable — a power dynamic occurs, which might open the way for cruelty — and yet without these incidences of cruelty, pain and suffering, or at least their possibility, there would be no care.
The aesthetic in Shannon Lyons’ work is often austere, but then something throws it off, twists it with an act of incongruence. Of late, kitchens have been a focus in Lyons practice. In her last site-specific exhibition at Heide, an orange lemon squeezer rested on a custom-built dark kitchen, a small burst of brightness against a black backdrop. For this exhibition, Li, in the Bundoora Homestead gallery 10 mugs sourced from the Internet decorated with guinea pig memes will rest haphazardly on a recreation of the kitchen in which John Cade worked.
Cade was a doctor at Bundoora Repatriation Mental Hospital in the 1940s where he also lived on the grounds. There, in a make-shift lab in an unoccupied ward on the homestead’s site, he began experimenting the use of lithium on actual — rather than metaphorical — guinea pigs, which would lead to advancements in the treatment of bipolar disorder. The kitchen arrangement in which he worked — a site of care, nurture, and creation — was functional, and indicative of post-war simplicity and practicality, although its surfaces were covered with science apparatus: glass jars, test tubes and medical contraptions. For Li, Lyons has remade this kitchen, her design decisions informed by remnants of post-war homes, cabinets and the like, whether contained in photographs or discarded by the side of the road.
It was during his time as a prisoner of war in Singapore that Cade’s ideas on mental illness began to form. While in the camp he observed two soldiers become mentally inflicted and die soon after; dissecting their bodies revealed internal war injuries, which he believed caused their mental unraveling. A line of thought persevered from this observation: that mental illness should be seen as the same as a physical illness, and that the physical could affect the mental. This thinking came from the study of food and nutrition where the smallest elements can affect the body and the mind, and differed from the psychoanalysis that dominated at the time, where ‘talking out’ one’s thoughts might lead to recovery.
Back in Melbourne, Cade developed another hunch: that the urine of manic patients had higher amounts of toxicity than the non-manic. Guinea pigs were injected with urine and gradually died from this inflection, their stocks replenished as the experimentations continued. He then, on a whim, switched to injecting lithium and was excited when the guinea pigs seemed to become soothed by the wash of chemicals through their usually neurotic bodies. Cade was likely incorrect on these accounts: that the urine of the manic is more toxic; and that guinea pigs were placated by lithium. (As his biographers have noted, they were likely still from the toxic shock.) But these experiments began his tenacious pre-occupation with lithium carbonate, the lightest of all metals found in the earth’s crust, and one that he soon tested on himself and his patients.
Cade’s first ‘success’, the bi-polar patient Bill Brand, died, eventually, from toxicity caused by lithium poisoning; as a result, Cade momentarily ceased his push of the substance as a treatment. Trials eventually resumed championed by others such as the psychiatrist Morgens Schoue, and helped stabilise the mood of many bi-polar sufferers. Later in life Cade received letters thanking him for his discovery, on how it changed their lives, their mania quelled.
Virginia Woolf wrote of the difficulty of the memoirist: “They leave out the person to whom things have happened to. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘this is what happened’ but they do not say what that person was like to whom that happened.” What John Cade did created his character, however, and this can be seen most clearly in a recent biography in which he is described as studious, warm with his patients, an original thinker, and possessing of a naturally scientific mind, which seemed to render his discoveries almost inevitable.
Character can also be found in small movements and routine, in gait, voice, and habits. Cade would stand in front of the fireplace as he told his cold and remote father of his scientific explorations and discoveries. In the gallery Lyons mimics this habit through positioning Cade’s kitchen with its back to the fireplace.
Another habit: Cade is described as a ‘man of rituals’ who drank 10 cups of tea a day. How banal and somewhat delightful to imagine this personal pattern, creating a scaffold from which to live his day, and to conduct his experiments and observations. Methodical but also a touch decadent, all that caffeine. In her essay ‘A Sketch of the Past’ (1939–40), Woolf writes about ‘being’ and ‘non-being’, and how most days are full of ‘non-being’: routine obligations, conversations we forget, banal administrative tasks; ‘being’ is those moments of aliveness and engagement in our tasks and activities. Did Cade’s ideas come while undertaking this ‘non-being’ event? Perhaps it was while drinking tea that his lithium hunch emerged. In Lyons’ drawings of his kitchen tea is used sparingly as pigment.
In this exhibition, Lyons includes 10 mugs printed with memes featuring actual guinea pigs. Just as Cade used guinea pigs in an attempt to provide comfort for others, so too have the creators of these memes, and the mugs on which they have been transferred. The guinea pig is taken, with all its connotations — mainly cuteness — and shifted by each meme maker’s individual ‘joke’, yet taken as a whole, these mugs come across as somewhat unhinged: ‘Yes I really do need all these guinea pigs’; ‘I can’t make everyone happy, I’m not a guinea pig’; ‘Surround yourself with guinea pigs, not negativity’; ‘keep calm and guinea pig on’; ‘I am 2 guinea pigs past normal’; ‘Guinea pigs love science’; ‘what would happen if a guinea pig was held upside down?’; ‘deal with it’ (the guinea pig is wearing sunglasses). It might be said that humour is personal, but these jokes are bad.
The purpose of these mugs is to aid self-care, to sooth oneself with guinea pig-humour and a warm beverage. The guinea pig is the butt of these jokes, and while this is not mean per se, the guinea pig is subjugated by the makers of them. The poles of the spectrum, and entanglement of cuteness and cruelty, come together in the humdrum routine of life.