Church transformed to stimulate mental health debate

A University of Dundee student is using real-life experiences from an Austrian psychiatric art centre to raise awareness of mental illness at one of Scotland’s most important historical sites.

Drew Walker, a PhD student at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, is utilising the stories of artist-patients at the Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic as part of Falling UP 4.0, a combination of soundscapes and projection being showcased at Dunfermline Abbey Church in Fife.

Residents at Gugging, near Vienna, have contributed short sound clips detailing their own ideas on sanctuary as part of the exhibition, which runs until Saturday.

Drew, who is from Dunfermline, said that he had been inspired by people at the facility, where mental health is destigmatised and artist-patients co-exist with a shared passion for creating art.

“Gugging is a magical place and my experiences there have been very humbling,” said the 29-year-old.

“It is a place where people who are mentally ill and people who are healthy can co-exist with dignity in a community of self-taught artists.

“This is the first time that Gugging artists have been included in an art exhibition here in Scotland and I want visitors to listen to these stories and take away a feeling of hope from what they hear.”

Drew visited Gugging 10 times when he conducted his Masters degree, investigating art process, mental illness and recovery.

Established for more than half a century as an art-based therapeutic community, the Austrian facility is also known as a centre for Art Brut, or ‘Outsider Art’, and has been credited as a source of inspiration to musicians David Bowie and Brian Eno, as well as fashion designer Christopher Kane.

Falling UP has seen Drew work with 30 collaborators who tell their stories as films are projected onto the Abbey’s interior, accounts that represent the struggle that people have with mental illness and their fight for hope and recovery.

Drew, who has himself been treated for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome, continued, “Part of my objectives within my PhD and Falling UP is to raise awareness of Gugging but to also try and facilitate a Gugging or similar process in Scotland for people with mental health difficulties.

“After I was diagnosed, it was a long process of recovery for me and I’m grateful I have experience of being a patient as I am able to use that to identify ways of understanding what mental illness is and how it shouldn’t be seen as something that generates stigma and shame.”

The exhibition at Dunfermline Abbey Church is open daily and runs until 1pm on Saturday 21 April.

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