Cultivating spaces for extraordinary artists

Article: For They Let In The Light

Writer and Curator Ashokkumar Mistry reflects on the process behind For They Let In The Light, a new live commission at Chisenhale Gallery by artist and mental health activist the vacuum cleaner (aka James Leadbitter). ​​​​​​​The project was developed with a group of young artists James met during Spring 2021 at the Coborn Centre for Adolescent Mental Health in East London.

I’m sitting at my computer, around a 100 or so miles away from Chisenhale Gallery where a sharing event is taking place led by the vacuum cleaner. It is early December 2022. As I watch a compelling mix of live performances and video art all created by young people in hospital during lockdown, I am blown away by the freshness and directness of the work. Over the hours and minutes of the presentation, it is these facts of the circumstances in which the work was made makes it all the more compelling. What does it mean to be a young person in hospital, how did that experience alter during lockdown and how could anyone make work with young people in such difficult circumstances as the pandemic?

As I watch, I’m reminded that who is, and who is not, permitted to call themselves an artist is still a source of frustration. Amongst the groups of people within society whose art is routinely disregarded or seen as subordinate are disabled people, people with mental health conditions, children and young people. Any intersectionality amongst these categories and the art world grows markedly more difficult.

Part of the problem is the perpetually romanticised narrative of the ‘artist’s struggle’, which sees the difference that disability or poor mental health brings as a catalyst of great art – but never the metaphor for or comment on the artist’s relationship with the outside world.

Unfortunately it still remains the case that, in the art world, disability and mental health make great art but only as long and one doesn’t speak about said disability or mental health condition. Sigh! We still don’t have the vocabulary to exhibit art that emanates from a rehabilitative process.

I was delighted to have been invited to this sharing of For They Let In The Light, art made by young people from a CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) ward, which was shown at Chisenhale Gallery, London. I couldn’t make it in person and was invited to join remotely. What was evident from the art I witnessed was that these were not young people who had been taught how to be artists based on someone else’s definition. Instead, it was the art of these young people from a CAMHS ward, in their own words and actions, which they had been helped to feel confident to share with the wider world.

I was able to catch up with James soon after the event and he surprised me by describing himself as “an activist that uses art”. This was interesting for a number of reasons however, particularly as art and activism are seen as kind of separate, despite their evident crossover.

James’ work is situational, it reacts or works within a situation and there is a sense of performance within that process. As James put it:

“I am looking at structural systems, how that impacts individuals and over the last 10 years, that has been focused on structures and systems that impact the mind and body, for myself and for other communities that are, I don’t want to say marginalised, I want to say oppressed or fucked-over or not given space and time. Whether that is young people, people who are detained under the Mental Health Act, or people that are because they are mad, also labelled as stupid.”

James spoke about the layers of structural violence laid upon oppressed communities, and the knowledge, wisdom and methods of surviving violence, that comes from people being oppressed, and defining “the artist, with those aesthetic relationships or those aesthetic understandings”.

Read more of this article on the Disability Arts Online website where Ashok Kumar Mistry considers:

  • Exposure and For they Let In The Light,​​​​​​​
  • Commissioning and Development Process
  • Care, Challenge and Trust​​​​​​​
  • Impact and Legacy
  • CRIP Aesthetics​​​​​​​