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The journey from asylum to gallery

LOCARNO: Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson talk about their essay film Abandoned Goods, which has its world premiere on Thursday.

Abandoned Goods, an artful 36-minute documentary short, is the only fully UK production selected for Locarno this year. The film, directed by Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson, introduces an unusual collection of artworks that were made at a psychiatric hospital in England from 1946-1981, in a pioneering studio led by artist Edward Adamson.

The Adamson Collection, as the surviving works are known, was recently rediscovered after years of neglect – more than 5,000 pieces were sitting in an old shower closet at a South London hospital. Now they are being hailed as powerful pieces of outsider art.

Borg had been working with the Wellcome Trust, which connects science and the arts, and Lambeth Hospital on her previous film Through the Hawthorn, an animated short about schizophrenia. During research for that film, she learned of the Adamson Collection from Surrey’s Netherne psychiatric hospital in Surrey. The timing was perfect — these “dusty objects in an NHS building were about to ‘become’ artworks. It was a crucial moment,” as she recalls.

The directing duo were each drawn to the story for different reasons.

Borg, Australia-born and London-based but soon headed to Los Angeles to take up a position at CalArts, says: “I was interested in the meaning of the object changing – from a clinical use to a therapeutic one and now to an art object separated from that.”

Lawrenson, who is a programmer for the BFI London Film Festival as well as a journalist and critic (he is the former deputy editor of Sight & Sound), said for him it was the poignancy in “how much you can know about people from what they leave behind. They are remnants of people’s lives.”

Ultimately the film is about outsider art but also the history of asylum life during those decades.

Because of the Wellcome Trust’s connection to the Archive, Borg and Lawrenson had already been in touch with them about access, and then applied for funding as well. Mental health organisation The Maundsley Charity also backed the film.

Working with both the Wellcome Trust and the Maudsley Charity was rewarding. “They supported us but also let us get on with it,” says Lawrenson. “They were both really good to work with.” 

It was having that level of backing that led the directing duo to seek out the experienced producers Kate Ogborn and Lisa Marie Russo at Fly Film. “For us it was a bit of money, so we wanted experienced producers,” Lawrenson remembers. “They were great to suggest crew members and introduced a rigour to our schedule.” Borg also points to Fly’s legal team helping with complicated rights issues.

Focusing on the art

The film uses archive photos and videos as well as voiceovers but there are no talking heads – letting the beautifully shot artworks take centre stage.

That’s partly for logistical reasons (many of the artists were anonymous, or patients were now untraceable) but also because the works are powerful enough to hold the screen. “The paintings are the way for them to have their say,” says Lawrenson of the patients. There is one artist who appears in an archival video, Rolanda Polonska.

Borg is an animation veteran [her animations have shown in Cannes and Rotterdam] but Abandoned Goods doesn’t include any animations – she says, “we didn’t want to detract from the paintings. It was more powerful.”

The DoP is Nick Gordon Smith (Swandown); the team decided to shoot most of the artworks rostrum style, which is laying objects flat on a table and having the camera above.

Iain Sinclair voices an unseen cataloguer (and if you listen closely you can hear Sight & Sound editor Nick James narrating a doctor’s notes).

Abandoned Goods premieres in Locarno on Thursday. More info at the festival website.

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