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Demented art

  • Source: Global Times
  • [08:31 January 21 2011]
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An artist surnamed Li (left) works with Guo Haiping at the Nanjing Natural Art Center on January 13. Li refuses to be fully named due to the stigma attached to the mentally ill. Photo: Liang Chen

By Liang Chen

Working with mentally ill artists was his inevitable destiny, he says.

As a child, Guo Haiping witnessed his disturbed brother Guo Enping being dispatched to a mental hospital after reading The Selected Works of Mao Zedong nonstop for three days and three nights.

Reaching his teens, Guo rebelled, left home and tried to escape into Hong Kong. After failing in that adventure, he found a group of "crazy artists" and began hanging out with them.

"I didn't work and I acted weird in those days," Guo says. "My neighbors used to say to my parents sympathetically, 'Now your younger son is crazy too!'"

It was about then that Guo became perplexed by the thin line between art and madness.

"Does madness inspire people to be creative or does art make us go mad?" he says.

After contacting and observing more and more people with mental illnesses, Guo experienced something of an epiphany.

"Their inner world is very beautiful and I want Chinese people to understand them," he says.

"I want to establish a bridge from the able-bodied to mentally disabled people because I believe ignorance and disrespect is blocking communication with the mentally disabled."

For the moment, there are few regular visitors to his Nanjing Natural Art Center in Jiangxinzhou that opened November 18 last year.

Founder Guo tries to provide an inspiring space for mentally disabled people of talent to explore their artistic creativity.

Mentally ill patients and their family members occasionally come and see if Guo is interested in their artwork.

"I want to tell them [visitors], 'People with mental illness can draw pictures and they can draw very well.'"

French painter Jean Dubuffet in 1962 launched the Association of Art Brut in Paris that opened a door on the "normal" world for mentally ill artists, a place where the two worlds could meet and communicate through painting, sculpture and drawing.

Forty-eight years later, Guo seeks to pioneer the same process on the Chinese mainland. So far all his money has come from entrepreneur Zeng Lihua who offered 360,000 yuan($ 54,000) for a year's operation of the art center, pledging to support it for three years.

"We can just about make ends meet," Zeng says.

Asked her motives, Zeng says "How wonderful it would be if these people with mental illnesses could survive by themselves instead of being a burden on society."

Seven work at the center, mostly volunteers. Psychiatrist Qin Yi quits her old job to serve the center unpaid and lives off her savings.

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