Four the four years of university, I had a summer job working on the grounds maintenance crew – the “garden gang” – of a psychiatric hospital in the city of North Bay, Ontario, about 200 miles north of Toronto.
It was an enormous facility, situated, campus-like, on hundreds of acres carved out of the northern Ontario bush in 1957. Lovely on the exterior – flower beds, gazebos, etc. – the institutional brick complex of interconnected buildings housed the demons that society deemed should be shut away and apart from society, miles away from the city of which it ostensibly was a part. One – or maybe some – of those demons inhabited a person I worked with briefly, and who ended up beating a staff member to death.
We do that time and again – shut away and separate the ill, I mean, or those who might scandalize society, upset social conventions and challenge prohibitions. Those with mental illness, tuberculosis, leprosy, AIDS – or, once upon a time, those who had committed the cardinal sin of having a child out of wedlock. We’ve been very good at separating and shunning, as if proximity would be contagious, and we’ve excelled at using separation and social isolation as a particularly vile means of punishment.
And this is where Michèle Karch-Ackerman enters the story. A Canadian installation artist with a particular interest in textiles who has lived in a rural part of southeastern Ontario for many years, Ackerman is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University) in Toronto. She’s exhibited her work widely across Canada, and she’s been the focus of a recent retrospective.
I mention the North Bay psychiatric hospital – now demolished – because in 2010 Ackerman did a month-long residency at the North Bay Regional Health Centre (where psychiatric in-patients now reside) working with hospital patients. From that she created the sculptural gallery installation Little Flower Sanatorium exhibited in North Bay and, more recently, at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington (VAC) just to the east of Toronto. It evokes the sanitoria once used to house those suffering from tuberculosis, and involves, in part, the creation of a “hospital room” made out of four hundred white handkerchiefs stitched together to form translucent curtains (many of which have been ornamented by Ackerman with “tatting,” a form of lacemaking once used as occupational therapy for tubercular patients) entirely enclosing a small space occupied by a small wooden dresser (on wheels) and a stool. The VAC installation occupied the center of an expansive third-floor gallery loft, and down below in the main gallery spaces on the first floor were the other elements of the exhibition: wall-mounted installations of the items patients would have brought with them to the sanitorium – sleepwear, towels, and a few personal items (like a teddy bear) – and several hundred ceramic plates, all with rose motifs grouped in clusters along two walls, that evoke St. Therese of The Little Flower, the Catholic saint who died of TB.
This is what the aesthetics of separation might look like. In Foundling, an earlier installation, Ackerman drew upon a familial source: as the Great Depression took root in the late 1920s, her then-teenage grandmother became pregnant and was institutionalized in a home run by nuns. Her name was taken away and she was forced to wear a black veil and not make eye contact with anyone else. Isolation as punishment. In her installation, Ackerman hung one hundred hand-made sleepers for babies (made from old curtains) in the gallery space, contextualizing them with a long institutional-like table set with a long single line of one hundred tea cups that intentionally echoes Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. But there is no celebratory joy, here. This is about mourning, loss, and the diminishment of the human spirit. “I work with the ghost world,” Ackerman’s been quoted as saying.
Her work, then, is largely about the social and cultural act of circumscribing, of setting apart that which upsets (or even upends) norms. Out of sight, out of mind. Ghosts. So she literally aesthetically re-places the outcast, the forgotten, the discarded via the intimacy of textiles and those everyday, utile artefacts of the domestic and the household. It’s poignant, even gut-wrenching work. Mournful. Gentle. Compassionate.
In 2001, Ackerman stood on a Newfoundland shore and dipped eight small hand-sewn coats into the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. It was about immediacy of grief and loss – the deaths of three young men earlier that year in the same spot as they jumped between ice floes – and, too, about remembrance and recall. The installation Lost Margaret – of which the coats were a part – was based on story in a novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery novel (of Anne of Green Gables fame) about the death of a sea captain’s beloved, and inspired by Montgomery’s personal loss of a child. Those eight coats were part of “Travel Kits for Lost Souls,” which included white knit hats, gloves, sweaters, and even hand-sewn sleeping bags and backpacks. Textiles in the guise of sculptural artefacts, hung suspended at eye level in gallery space.
We can’t help but encounter ghosts.
By Gil McElroy
Check out some of Michèle Karch-Ackerman’s past exhibitions at the Kennedy Gallery, Canadian Clay and Glass Museum, Gallery of Peterborough, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and the Yukon Arts Centre.