An Artist Remembers

 

New installation pays tribute to mental institution—and its souls

 

Artist Anna Schuleit outside Northampton State Hospital, the institution she memorialized in a new work

 

Vibhuti Patel
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE

 

 Nov. 24 - Last Saturday, Anna Schuleit paid tribute to Northampton State Hospital, the abandoned 144-year-old Massachusetts mental institution, in her own, eclectic way.

 

 

 

 

 

THE 26-YEAR OLD ARTIST, installing state-of-the art speakers with the help of Klondike Sound Company, premiered “Habeas Corpus: A Musical Installation for Northampton State Hospital,” a piece that movingly memorialized the 2,700 patients it once housed and brought closure to the complex that has been abandoned since 1993 and will soon be demolished.
        Schuleit, the daughter of German installation artist Eleonore Scriba, was haunted by the hospital since 1991 when, as a high school student at the nearby the Northfield Mount Hermon School, she would take walks around its series of buildings. More than anything, she was struck by its incredible silence, its “call for a tribute.”
        So in 1997, after studying art at the Rhode Island School of Design, Schuleit returned but found that it was not enough to express her feelings in drawings, paintings or photographs.
        She recalled her German grandmother saying, “When someone dies, you have to open the window so the soul can fly out.” But no one, it seemed, had ever opened those windows. That’s when it came to her: “I want to make the building sing.”
        Schuleit chose a choral work by Johann Sebastian Bach and returned to the idea of taking a walk but this time would invite thousands of people to accompany her.
       After 26 months of fund-raising and fighting various bureaucracies, Schuleit organized a two-day mental-health symposium and got former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis as the keynote speaker. On Saturday morning, after an open-mike forum that gave voice to former mental patients, she took that walk up the grassy hill from Smith College to the State Hospital with over 1,000 people who responded to her call.
        It was, she said, “a ceremony for the uncounted anonymous who lived and died in this and many more such institutions.”
        At noon, Harmonia Mundi’s glorious recording of Bach’s “Magnificat” poured out of the shattered windowpanes for 28 minutes while men, women, children and dogs silently snaked around the labyrinthine buildings—an overwhelming 414,000 square feet, where the film “The Cider House Rules” was filmed. Tattered curtains fluttered in the chill breeze, bare trees and gray November skies underscored the desolation of lives past.
        Suddenly, when the music reached its climax, there was a vivid sunburst. Anna Schuleit had made a building sing.