Silence: Imprisoned reality

Photographs by Peter Liddy

Grahame Galleries + Editions, Brisbane

26 June- 24 July 2004

A disused, filth-caked bathtub, an empty hallway, doors thrown open as though in haste, a door scarred by deep gouges. These images and others form Peter Liddy's homage to a hidden aspect of Brisbane's local history, the now defunct Blair Pavilion, formerly the Ipswich Hospital for the Insane. It is now a heritage listed building under the auspices of the University of Queensland's Ipswich campus, and lies empty.

Liddy's photographic practice has long blended a love for industrial architecture with a keen aesthetic eye and interest in social history. This latest body of work celebrates the architectural character of the building and acknowledges its convoluted history and many guises over the passage of time, as well as the individuals who played out their tumultuous existences within its fraught halls. In a sense, this series is an extension of Liddy's more recent photographs of the North Ipswich Railway Workshops in so far as his larger artistic project involves recording and documenting the existence of people in their absence.

Liddy's photographic essay captures the physical quiet of the now empty space and, on a metaphorical level, exposes society's lingering awkward silence in the face of mental illness, that great social taboo. Looking at Liddy's images it is possible to imagine the embarrassed and no doubt infrequent visits by shamed family members to which the building played silent witness. Although in 2004 mental illness is not considered the social stigma it may have once been, contemporary society still struggles to deal with concepts of insanity and madness, and how to treat, house and protect those who are afflicted. One of the most incongruous images in Silence: Imprisoned Reality depicts a large room, vacant except for a poster/mural of an alpine scene which dominates the space. A kitsch version of a romantic landscape, captured in black and white in the context of the Blair Pavilion it speaks of futility and dashed hopes. Entitled Room with a vie w, one can only ponder what responses it may have prompted in the inmates for whom it offered a faux vista at odds with the bars on the windows. Home offers a corner of a room, a cell perhaps, where someone has written above a bare nail hole the word 'Picture', as though in a bitterly ironic recognition of the absence. Liddy's evocative titles lend his imagery a further poignancy. Outlook and Emptiness are both exquisite studies in light and shadow; sunlight bleakly struggles through dirty windows made opaque with the dust of years to illuminate a cheerless interior potently conjuring up a sense of loneliness and abandonment. Similarly, the chilling Exit with its depiction of the furrows made by confused , frantic attempts to escape (or something more innocent perhaps?), paradoxically suggests no way out.

One of the most striking aspects of these images is their quietude, and resonating muteness. Most of us imagine insane asylums to be noisy, chaotic environments but Liddy captures instead a stillness that speaks of inaction and disuse. The bathtub in Bath in all its decrepitude tells its own tales of both abuse and care. Coupled with the knowledge that this building once housed those decreed by law to be criminally insane (up until the late 1960s when it became a home for the intellectually disabled), it is tempting to read a darker subtext into many of the images. But as Michele Helmrich observes in her catalogue essay, 'If we are looking for the remnants of past horrors we may be disappointed. While some traces of occupation are found, what we see more readily is the accumulated grime of neglect. The layers of history reveal their secrets reluctantly'. What Liddy manages to coax from the medium of black and white photography is its powerful ability to lend austerity and grace to the most unpalatable of subjects, where colour may have proven an unwelcome and gaudy distraction.

Importantly, this series of photographs by Liddy is something of a labour of love. These images are not random observations but rather the product of repeat visits made by the artist to the site, where in quiet contemplation he set about recording for posterity a shunned aspect of local history. Peter Liddy is most adept at exploring social history in a highly aesthetic manner, illuminating that which has been secreted away to create images of great beauty and gravity.