Arts & Culture

‘A place that can be wandered’

6 min read

Installation artist, Radcliffe Fellow Anna Schuleit talks about her work, past and present

In the early 1990s, while still in high school, Anna Schuleit discovered mystery by taking long walks through the deserted grounds of the Northampton State Hospital. This cluster of Victorian buildings — with its iron-bar windows, crumbling red brick, and chest-high grass — touched a deep chord in the young artist.

“I came to my work as a pedestrian,” said Schuleit, now an installation artist and a 2006-07 Radcliffe Fellow. On April 9, in a talk at Radcliffe Gymnasium, she led an audience of a hundred along the path of her artistic journey.

Early on, she was inspired by abandoned institutional spaces like the old mental hospital. Or by public spaces that allowed for solitude and daydreaming.

Another inspiration was literary: Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher who wrote about the poetics of space and reverie. “As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere,” he wrote of daydreaming, an activity that inspires Schuleit and informs all her work. In the talk, she said she was taken with Bachelard’s idea of “immensities within ourselves.”

A workshop is important to her as an artist, but “so is always a site, a setting, a real location,” said Schuleit, “a place that can be wandered.”

It is there that a person can have “a dialogue with stillness,” she said. “I believe in the imagination. It is a muscle in the body that can carry us anywhere.”

In 1997, Schuleit’s imagination carried her back to Northampton, where she evaded guards to wander for days of walks on the old hospital grounds. Schuleit diagrammed her steps along the way, and drew thumb-size pictures of the angular architecture and the overgrown trees that framed it. She counted rooms (Northampton State Hospital, built starting in 1856, has 414,000 square feet of interiors), and, in an old document, she counted the number of haircuts given there in 1958: 9,900.

On her walks, Shuleit collected chips of lead paint to display in lines of frame-like glass boxes, talked with former workers at the hospital, and studied old pictures and records. She contemplated the “doubling of misfortune” in the decay of the buildings and the decay of memory — and felt a vivid sadness for the 2,700 patients who over the course of a century had lived there.

One fragment of testimony came from Sylvia Plath, who as a student at nearby Smith College recalled walking by the hospital at night and hearing the screams of the committed — “a most terrifying, holy experience,” she wrote.

In November 2000, after three years of struggles over funding and access, Schuleit turned the old space into “Habeas Corpus,” two days of “celebration” (including testimony from former patients) and performance art. She bought 5,000 feet of sound cable, and with the help of 80 volunteers converted the old mental hospital’s main building into a giant amplifier, “to animate all the voids of the architecture.”

At noon on Nov. 18, for 28 minutes 106 loudspeakers bounced the full sounds of Bach’s “Magnificat” into the interiors, and back out the iron grids, broken windows and ruined arches of the building onto the audience of hundreds standing raptly below.

That experience, captured in a 10-minute PBS film, bounced Schuleit into a kind of fame. By 2003, she put together “Bloom,” an installation art piece in Boston commissioned to mark the closing of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center’s main building, built in 1912.

As before, she let the space speak to her, asking officials there only for “a week, an office, a key to every door, and a person who knows every story.” In the end, an impression formed over the years inspired her: “I noticed that nobody received any flowers in psychiatry,” said Schuleit, in contrast to hospital stays for heart attacks or broken bones.

So using hospital records, she calculated how many patients had been committed there since 1912, “bringing together all the flowers they had never been given.” The answer: 28,000 potted — not cut — flowers (so they could be given away afterwards). Shipments included 15,000 tulips from Canada, stacked high in an 18-wheeler.

Schuleit transformed hallways into rivers of flowers. The chairs in a waiting room looked like islands in a sea of flowers. An abandoned swimming pool, used to store furniture, was filled with 3,000 blue African violets. Floors in the basement, where the laboratories had been, were carpeted with live turf “that came in rolls, like sushi,” said Schuleit.

“It was a crash course in colors,” she said of “Bloom,” — and for viewers, a font of tears for the departed and the forgotten.

Schuleit, during what she called her “generous and wonderful year” at Radcliffe, has planned two other installation pieces.

In August, she will set up “Land Lines” at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., a retreat for artists celebrating its 100th year this summer. A hundred telephones set up on trees and illuminated with cones of light will “all ring at the same time,” and later be stations where listeners can talk to someone they don’t know. A central switchboard, run by children from Peterborough, will offer a message, said Schuleit: “Who’s calling? Can I connect you to a tree?”

She planned another installation for this summer on Lovell’s Island in Boston Harbor, as part of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Vita Bevis 2007 exhibition, but had to postpone it at least until the summer of 2009 because of funding and technical difficulties.

Schuleit plans to use the 62-acre deserted island — where she has lived in a yurt for two years — to illuminate how sunbathers, beachcombers, and daydreamers use Lovell’s Island, “facing that vastness that is the sea.”

The work-in-progress, “Intertidal,” may fix giant mirrors opposite the artillery positions of long-gone Fort Standish “to reflect the guns back into neutrality,” she said, and to add a doubleness to the landscape by reflecting it.

Or she may use a specialized German reflective glass, or enlargements of her studies of island bathers, placing them where the guns were.

“Phones and guns and reflections have been the currents of my work,” said Schuleit, whose talk was accompanied by dozens of images, including her studio work. “But as you can see, I’m drifting back to painting.”

Installation art — public, ephemeral, and logistically challenging — sometimes leaves something to be desired. “I’m longing for a studio life,” she said. “That part’s missing from these big efforts.”

And Schuleit wondered aloud about installation pieces that go up and come down, leaving only a memory. “I don’t know if they have any use — probably not,” she said, addressing that interior question that confronts every artist in a world of practicalities.

Still, Schuleit said of art, “you can learn from it without it continuing.”