‘The installation is a work of art in itself’ Guardian ‘The Asylum’ is an immersive installation consisting of an intricate set of three rooms reimagined from a French Victorian Mental Asylum, shown here in autumn 1945, retracing the inspiration for late works of Jean Dubuffet displayed opposite. It was designed based on the architecture of actual Asylum’s but the physical reality heightened with every surface covered with a shocking quantity of frenetic drawing, writing, and scratched carving


Frieze Masters 2015 ‘The Asylum’ 

‘The installation is a work of art in itself’ Guardian

‘An all-encompassing immersive experience’ Telegraph

The Asylum’ is an immersive installation consisting of an intricate set of three rooms reimagined from a French Victorian Mental Asylum, shown here in autumn 1945, retracing the inspiration for late works of Jean Dubuffet displayed opposite. It was designed based on the architecture of actual Asylum’s but the physical reality heightened with every surface covered with a shocking quantity of frenetic drawing, writing, and scratched carving, bringing to life the sense of free creative expression without social constraint apparent in works created by a number of the patient’s, along with a recognition that real lives were lived confined within the walls, and each of the patient’s had stories, careers, and families left behind them. 

Commissioned by Helly Nahmad for the Helly Nahmad Gallery, it is based on his concept of displaying late Dubuffet works on a white background, and opposite the expressions of raw energy and colour that illustrate the freedom of expression that so inspired Dubuffet.

It was designed by Robin Brown, and produced by Anna Pank as a collaboration by Brown and Pank.

There are perhaps few better exponents of art at the fringes of sanity than the late French dramatist Antonin Artaud. “Words say little to the mind... But space thundering with images and crammed with sounds speaks,” Artaud famously wrote in 1933.

In 1945 as World War II drew to a close Jean Dubuffet travelled to Mental Health Asylum’s in Switzerland and France and started to collect works of the insane as well as of others at the extremes of society, in 1946 he went on to call this work “Art Brut” – raw art, created away from mainstream culture and the art world, something pure and powerful. Along with his interest in Patient work Dubuffet was also fascinated by the free expression found in children’s drawings and that produced by those on the margins of society, but perhaps the ’single most important event in orienting his activity was this discovery of the art of the mentally ill.’

In 1922, he had been given a book by Andre Breton written by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn: ‘Bildnerei der Geisteskranken’, that created a sensation through its assertions that art works executed by asylum inmates were worthy of serious aesthetic consideration’ and to Dubuffet, the book was indeed a revelation, and in it one finds the catalysts, if not the sources, for many of his artistic premises.

For the design It made sense to split the space lengthways into equal halves facing each other, and my proposal was to create part of a French Asylum with the three rooms inside openings in a white internal corridor wall, the colour stopping at the front edge of each opening, creating rectangles of colour out of white mimicking the Dubuffet paintings opposite. The three rooms lit with skylights and cracks of light through shuttered windows to give a sense of a world outside unavailable to those confined within.

The first room an open sided small institutional office, with desk, phone, medicines, a shallow cabinet with the patients toothbrushes each labelled with their name, photographs of the staff of the hospital, had patient’s suitcases in the process of being itemized, some of them open revealing the personal contents and their stories, referenced from photographic studies of cases left in actual Asylums. The second a patient’s room with a small cast iron bed, chair, sink, side table with  possessions neatly arranged, small desk, and a dramatic expression of the patients thoughts covering the walls.  And the third a large communal room where the patients have covered every surface of the entire room with bold expressive raw outpourings of their thoughts, with low dividing walls between tables and chairs, hanging institutional lights, shuttered windows, a corner sink, and large double doors.

Researching Dubuffet’s life, his interest in the art produced by people on the fringes of society, and the French Asylums and their history I worked with a historic researcher in Paris contacting the Mental Asylum’s L’Hopital Sainte-Catherine in Paris and L’Hopital de Ville-Evrard at Seine-St-Denis, visiting their archives, along with contacting others in France, Germany and Switzerland. 

This research was used in the design of the architecture of the rooms with the skylights, the doors, the floor patterns, the low dividing walls and low hanging glass lights being taken from original photographs of actual institutions.

References showed patient’s in communal rooms working mostly on paper, and some covering entirely the walls and floors of their own rooms with drawings and carvings, but the notion of a large room entirely covered with works is a heightened reality. Rooms dedicated solely to art activity took hold later in the 1940’s along with the Art Therapy movement which was gaining ground at that time. 

Amongst my research I found Jean Phillipe Charbonier’s 1950’s photographs of the run down Asylum system in France depicting pitifully sad environments, and that would have been one direction to pursue this project. It would have satisfied a referential and well intentioned worthiness that surrounds some public opinion of both mental health and Outsider Art, seeming to show empathy with the artist’s situation or illness by emphasising and celebrating their plight. In discussions that I initiated with Mind, the mental health charity, on this project and representations of mental health, they felt it would not be so useful to sustain stereotypical views of the patients and their surroundings, not to present sad pitiful institutions from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and that our approach to present  an older historic view of the asylum system and concentrating on the patient works and their imagination and creativity was a good direction.

The Installation’s drawings, writing, and carvings scratched onto the frames and surfaces of furniture and walls were designed to look as if by the various patients that had passed through the institution at different points in time up to 1945, placed immediately around where they might have sat or stood, layers of expressions of visceral thoughts that they had no other way of explaining.

The art works were representative of the techniques, themes and styles featuring in actual patient works but new and unique interpretations,referenced from research with the Welcome trust, the Prinzhorn Collection, Collection de L’Art Brut Lausanne, a wide reading list of published works, and images from photographic sources, 

I designed a layout of the works, and developed them with a visual artist, Joanna Pratt, producing views of the entire installation. The works were translated from the visuals onto the walls of the built setting that was standing in a workshop in Croydon over a period of 5 weeks.The visual designs gave a structure to the layout, and then as the work progressed the artists interpretations and own imaginings took over from them. 

A team of 3 core artists, lead by Luca Crestini, with his assistants Lindsay Douglas and Sharn Whitehead produced the work, and each added their own artistic stamp of free paint strokes, detailed overlaying and surreal imaginings. Luca co-ordinated his team and the other key artists throughout the project and responded to my drawings and visuals with a major sensitivity for the material and its resonance and to conveying its spirit without duplication. We developed the works with the intention of them looking genuinely from their period, from the 1900’s through to 1940’s and his own painterly slightly period style and strokes fitted well. 

The contrast between Luca’s flowing stroke, Lindsay’s surreal sense, Sharn’s textural layering, and the other key artists ; Mike Sharp’s cartoonish personal style, and Joella Wheatley’s spare precision contributed to the feeling of such differing strokes and perspectives, essential to feel all the different personas work present in one room.

The Majority of the key artists were sourced by Anna Pank, and they worked remotely on paper based designs and came to the set to work directly on it .Mike Sharp,an artist painter with a love of Dubuffet, worked at night to produce expressive characters in pen and ink on paper, some of which were transposed by the core artists to the walls, some added later directly by him, and he returned at the install at Frieze to apply final works, Joella Wheatley, a fine artist graduate, who specializes in intricate spare perspectives, locked herself away working on two table tops day and night carving mathematical geometries into their surfaces, came to set to add further works and at the final install painted directly onto the walls. 

Kellie Walshe is known to me from the Film world, a Calligrapher who works on historic recreations of paperworks for film, she took delivery of the double doors from the large room and worked with chalks and inks to produce the scrawling pieces of text that cover them, and having prepared groupings of scrawled text on paper came to the setting to hand draw text pieces and hieroglyphics over the walls. The text pieces of scrawled handwriting were written based on real graffiti from the walls of French Prison’s and Asylum’s. 

Additional works on surface and paper were created by: Amy Haigh who is a graduate of St Martins who drew paper based works directly onto the collected vintage French notebooks and books on set. David Pearce is an artist who carved and painted 2 of the tables. Ahetas is a greek painter and musician who locked himself away for 6 days to create frenetic and surreal drawings in inks onto found paperwork some of which were also transposed onto the walls. Timna Woolard is an illustrator who worked on the initial translations of the ideas onto paper.

The Installation had a life and energy resulting from the sheer quantity of artistic endeavour put into it, the intent of the original design and visuals, along with the narrative and human stories told by the collection of found objects, the toothbrushes labelled with patients names, the original photographs of the Asylum’s Doctors, the period French notebooks with original poems and writings inside, to the suitcases with family photographs and the found curated objects inside.The quantity of time and effort, thought and the actual physical artistic input on all the surfaces does move the entire installation into the realm of being a piece of art in it’s own right. Visitors asked if it could or was to be set up in it’s entirety in a Gallery space in another country. The Gallery as with the Collector exhibit intended it to have a short theatrical life, a moment to be experienced and not repeated.

It was designed as an installation, to explain Dubuffet’s influences and provide context to his exhibited works, to show the frenzied energy that fascinated him and to  to pull an emotional punch and many visitors felt moved by the work, and those with mental health backgrounds saw much that they recognised. 

I intended the installation to have an immersive filmic soundscape, made up of atmospheric sounds of an institution with echoing footsteps and spoken voice from corridors and other rooms, together with passages of contemporary popular music I chose as being appropriate to 1945 and reflecting the mainstream culture outside this contained world.  A sadder more melancholy soundtrack might have seemed to show more reference and empathy to the patients situation, but would have served to satisfy a sense of worthiness rather than explain further the story. The different elements of the soundtrack played out over a set of 12 speakers placed along the length and inside the rooms of the installation to create a spatial soundscape. 

Leo Marganne was the most popular singer in France in the 1940’s and the soundtrack includes her singing a haunting French cover of ‘Over the Rainbow’, along with Yves Montand singing a French cover of ‘Autumn Leaves’, Django Reinhardt, Edith Piaf, , and later orchestral pieces written by Alexandre Desplat for Marcel Pagnol. The soundscape was edited and installed by Simon Biddulph of System Sound. 

During the project we were aware of the difficulties that Dubuffet’s “Art Brut” movement raised, the questions around Outsider Art, and the representation of mental health in a commercial situation alongside artworks are for sale, and we chose to embrace the contradictions, and the questions they raised.

There were many romantic notions about the creativity of the mentally insane, an admiration for their pure and authentic creative impulses, and the freedom this gave them, an ‘admiration of the tenacious selfhood of the psychotic artists‘ but these notions failed to perceive the actual suffering of people who were not free in any other sense of the word, and often endured regular electric shock therapy.

There are contradictions around the Doctor’s, interested artists and philosophers encouragement of the disturbed outpourings of the mentally ill, in some cases exacerbating their illness, in some cases leading to suicide.

The majority of the produced works were created in solitude and not made with the intent of exhibition, but as personal expressions of thoughts unable to be made any other way. Their display in the mainstream art world is directly counter to it being outside those very values. 

Dubuffet himself along with other artists appropriated ideas from the works he saw, and yet in collecting, displaying and raising awareness of this work can be seen to be trying to be celebrate the pure and authentic creative impulse.

And of course Dubuffet was not the first artist to become interested and pursue the art of the insane, before the twentieth century several artists such as Hogarth, Goya, Géricault and Fuseli had taken an interest, though mainly as subject matter for their painting, and ”Der Blaue Reiter" group: Wassily Kandinsky, Auguste Macke, Franz Marc, and Alexej Jawlensky became interested in the art of the mentally ill as early as 1912.  Max Ernst, Paul Klee and others were equally fascinated by patient art and travelled with Dubuffet on his visits to the Asylums in the 1940’s.

At a panel discussion at the Metro Show fair in New York, including Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of the 2013 Venice Biennale, the Manhattan-based dealer Randall Morris expressed concern that exhibition displays of ‘mainstream’ and ‘non mainstream art’ had an obligation to make clear the ‘deeper underlying human connections between such disparate art forms’. In attempting to provide context for Dubuffet’s works and the patient’s situation we hope to have gone someway to illustrate those deeper underlying connections.

By creating this experience, by asking the viewer to journey through these contradictions we hope to provoke more questions and discussion about the role of art, beauty, mental health and madness, exploitation, power and enterprise. 

The Installation was produced by Anna Pank, a collaborator on both this and ‘The Collector’ Installation of 2014 .She was integral to the project and involved from the start in meetings discussing the choice of works to be shown. Her Art History background and wide knowledge of the art world and contemporary artists, together with her people skills, ability to always go the extra mile, and experience with teams she has built up, was invaluable in the realisation of this project. She was involved in sourcing the Lead and Key artists for the installation according to their own painting style's and to create a blend of different strokes. She also worked on budgeting, crew, and with the Gallery, Frieze Masters, and Martin Speed and Flash Film transport on the logistics. She also worked with Simon Biddulph of System Sound on the soundtrack and playback, with the graphics companies on stand text, and with Petter Skramstad on the Lighting.

The installation was built by Marc Hubbard and Josh Tarr of Scena, pre built and painted as a kit to be re assembled on site at Frieze in 2 days.

The props and dressing were sourced by myself on trips to French Flea markets, alongside Natalie Croquet, Parisian stylist, searching on Le Bon Coin, and the Prop houses in Paris, with Sophie Philips an English Set Decorator from London dealers, and Suzanne Beirne a London stylist supplementing additional smaller dressing. The installation was dressed led by myself with Anna Pank, Marko Waschke, Jemima Hawkins, and Olivia Mckewan.                               The lighting was designed with Petter Skramstad of LX lighting.

The hang of the Dubuffet works was led and supervised by Helly and the team at Helly Nahmad Gallery.


‘An all-encompassing immersive experience’ Telegraph

‘Spectacular scenography ‘, Le figaro Culture

‘A brilliant installation reimagining the asylum’s of France and Switzerland’ FAD

‘This year's booth is even better A tour de force’ Culture whisper

‘Another stand-out installation this year’ Bonhams

‘The most talked-about sight across both Frieze fairs’ Artsy

‘Arguably more challenging and brave in the uncomfortable questions it poses’ Artsy

The ‘reimagining of the clinics and sanitoria that inspired Dubuffet’s Art Brut promises to be the fair’s talking point’.

‘They’ve done it again, an outstanding installation, visually intriguing and awe-inspiring art news

‘Helly Nahmad again raises the curatorial bar with ‘The Asylum’ a taste for art

the soundtrack 2015

1.Leo Marjane Seule ce soir
2.Au pays du soleil: jai reve d’une fleur la fille du puisatier Jeny Helia & Alibert.
3.Les Feuilles Mortes Yves Montand
4.Soir Indigo Leo Marjane
5.Valse Triste Paul Mottram
6.L’arc en ciel Leo Marjane
7.Menage Geoffrey Keezer
8.Solitude Django Reinhardt
9.L’ame au diable Leo Marjane
10.Y’as Pas D’printemps Edith Piaf
11.A travers champs La fille du puisatier Alexandre Desplat
12.Un Jour mon prince viendra Eliane Celis
13.La Chapelle au claire de lune Leo Marjane
14.La complainte de Mandarin Yves Montand
15.Always Irving Berlin Deanna Durbin
16.Nuages Lucienne Deyle
17.Tears Django Reinhardt
18.Swing de Paris Django Reinhardt
19.Core ngrato La fille du puisatier Alexander Desalt






Robin Brown