Britta Von Zweigbergk:



By Britta von Zweigbergk

When, in the summer of 1989, during my visit to his studio, Antony Gormley raised the idea of ‘lending’ one of his sculptures - ‘WITNESS’ to the Art Therapy Department at Bexley Hospital, I was as enthusiastic as he was. After all, my passion for the idea that art was available to everyone and was part of everyday life resonated closely with Antony Gormley’s placing of his figures in landscapes and by the sea so that they became part of the natural world.

That world had also become part of the art therapy department in the shape of objects brought in and left - shells, stones, bones and pieces of driftwood, not to mention tree trunks and roots from the extensive and beautiful hospital grounds.

Art ~ in its broadest sense WAS all around us and not just in galleries and museums. What could be more altruistic and closer to these shared ideals than the placing of one of Antony Gormleys enigmatic and iconic figures in the centre of the sprawling and anarchic art therapy department with its paint encrusted tables and graffiti filled walls. The enthusiasm was infectious and further discussed and debated freely over the hospitable and welcoming lunch that had been provided - I enjoyed my visit to Antony Gormley’s studio in Peckham Rye, as - armed with camera I gazed around at the sunlit studio and the standing and recumbent figures that are central to his work.

It was only much later when arrangements had been made and - alone with my thoughts I considered it further and surveyed the idea in all its entirety. There were considerable ‘downs’ to the project as well as the obvious and excellent ‘ups’.. The ‘downs’ were rather overwhelming when I reflected on them closely and I wondered whether there might be a compromise solution.

Life in the art therapy department - as pleasing and fulfilling as it was to me personally had also been a training ground over the years - for - well, certainly several other professions outside that of art therapy and all of them to do with detection and investigatory skills. Scotland Yard, the Met and MI5 came to mind.

Things in the Department had a tendency to go missing - anything and everything could go missing if ones antennae was not in a state of super sensitive awareness at all times. To survive successfully in an art therapy department that opened its doors to sometimes the most challenging of individuals - providing the opportunity to be creative and spontaneous needed eyes in the back of ones head and an intuition that bordered on the paranormal - no easy task.

There was also the question of graffiti - walls, tables, trolleys, cupboards tended to have words, sayings, statements, names scrawled over them. The three large studios were alive with an alternative philosophy. This was all well and good - after all the art therapy department was supplying a need for freedom of spirit and mind - but on the other hand here was an offer to place a piece of sculpture ‘WITNESS’ - by an International, world renowned artist that was worth thousands of pounds in a setting in which uncertainty and unpredictability reigned.

One regular in patient visitor to the department - with itching fingers and a permanent marker seemingly available in his top pocket at all times would have undoubtedly - no, - DEFINITELY seized the opportunity to write ‘THE DEVIL’ in large letters on the sculpture. This was what he did This was part and parcel of his daily routine. Nooks and crannies and odd unexpected corners of the hospital were testament to DW’s regularly subscribed habit - ‘THE DEVIL’ appeared in the most unlikely areas of the hospital.

I was worried. I was VERY worried. Although largely adventurous in my outlook and approach, particularly in the art therapy department at that time, I also had a deep respect for other people’s creations and property. I wanted - if possible to keep them safe and in the state in which they had arrived! Also,to REMAIN where they had arrived!

Besides the graffiti there was the realistic fear that the statue itself might disappear. Word got round. There was a very effective grapevine that included the outside. And in the past unlikely and expensive items had gone missing, not only in our department, but inside and outside the hospital itself - often moved out under cover of darkness. I couldn’t guarantee WITNESSís safety at night OR during parts of the day and evening. By the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the significant drop in in patient numbers meant that large areas of the hospital were quite deserted - the empty corridors a magnet for intruders. It was important to realize that NOTHING was sacred. My fevered imagination imagined WITNESS, - philosophical and reflective to the last, alone at night time - in the department, an anonymous van parked outside and with furtive haste, the department entered and he - wrapped in blanket or tarpaulin would be bundled into getaway vehicle and disappear into the night - into the shady world of illicit deals and God knows what.

My own destination after such a disaster might be to leave the country as soon as possible. South America as a destination came into mind.

No, a compromise seemed entirely necessary in the circumstances. I wanted to keep WITNESS safe. Moving him from Antony Gormley’s studio in Peckham Rye initially provided a separate challenge but we managed it - courtesy of the Cedars Department van (The Cedars was our next door neighbour in the Hospital). After much physical effort and acquiring a hospital trolley for the final journey down the T corridor - WITNESS settled down looking out on quite alien surroundings and in direct contrast to the calm tranquillity of Antony Gormley’s studio.

But there remained a pleasing passivity about the pose, a general sense of adapting to whatever landscape he happened to find himself in, arms clasped around knees, a spectator to the eruptions of creativity around him. A tolerant presence.

On that first day, sitting comfortably - or so we hoped - on one of the solid oak tables by the windows which usually had paper and art materials on, he settled himself. and was certainly the centre of attraction.

I was on patrol - unofficial warden and I took my duties very seriously - moving constantly through the three large studios of the department, - on the lookout for DW and his indelible black marker. Luckily there was no sign of him but it wasn’t a situation that could continue indefinitely and very soon the
Cedars van came to the rescue again and WITNESS was moved into my home where he variously sat - in front of the fire in the sitting room or on the lawn in my garden, particularly if it was a nice day.

A certain routine then evolved of regularly bringing small groups of patients back to look at WITNESS, touch him and perhaps be inspired into using clay, which was popular throughout the department. It was the best compromise solution at the time and proved very successful. Nothing is as difficult and as insurmountable as it perhaps first appears. (see photographs)

After a period of time WITNESS was duly returned to Peckham and Antony Gormley’s studio. He was perhaps relieved to return to his usual setting. But his visit to us remains a memorable tale from the art therapy department at Bexley Hospital’s Annals.

All photographs by Britta von Zweigbergk and reproduced with kind permission by Sir Antony Gormley OBE

Britta von Zweigbergk March 2016