The Fragile Institution
Anne Ferran

We know very little about the women in Anne Ferran’s 2003 series 1-38. They are not named and their faces have been cropped out of each photograph. All we see are their fraying cardigans and clenched fists.

These women, 38 unidentified female patients from a Sydney psychiatric hospital in the 1940s, have slipped through the cracks of our collective memory. Ferran did not take these photographs. They are archival images that have been enlarged and cropped. Selecting and editing these images, Ferran interrogates the erasure of each woman’s identity. By rescuing the pictures from the dark recesses of the archive she unsettles the systemized logic of the institution. These women are meant to remain in their files, their lives reduced to nothing more than a ‘case history’. But here they are memorialized. Though the women remain unknown, they are visible. Their silence speaks.

Ferran’s images exhume forgotten and overlooked personal narratives, giving the ghosts of these anonymous women space to move. These haunted photographs play on the edge of concealment and exposition. Even though the women’s facial expressions and identity are missing, their suffering is easily legible. We see it in their splayed fingers and white knuckles, reaching and grasping but not quite holding on.

Large 1-38

1-38 (detail) 2003 Inkjet print 32.8 x 48.3 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery

These hands are neither passive nor submissive. They do not hang limp but point and clutch and contort. They betray the fear that institutional incarceration breeds, revealing the horrors that exist behind closed doors and beyond the frame.

The clothes do the same. One woman’s cardigan is missing a button and gapes open just above her navel while another’s is misaligned. In a different image a piece of twisted fabric hangs out of a buttonhole like a severed umbilical chord. Some women are lucky enough to have coats to protect them against the cold. Others are swaddled in blankets. Holding each woman’s arms down, the blankets speak of restraint rather than comfort.

Enlarging and cropping these archival photographs, Ferran works with the mutable boundaries that delineate visible and invisible histories. She teases out the peripheral and the inconspicuous, allowing unspoken narratives to infiltrate — to haunt — what remains perceptible.

The photographs of these women were also collated into a set of four books. The first book, INSULA book 1 reproduces the images as they appear in the series 1-38. The same photographs feature in the other three books but they have been cropped again. INSULA book 3&4 show only the hands. In INSULA book 2 we see each woman’s face. The books themselves have never been exhibited alongside the 1-38 prints but photographs of them have. In these photographs, each page appears within the frame, superimposed on top of one another. The books become a blur, like stacked frames in a fast-paced animation. The images printed on each page melt into one another as the 38 women fold into one.

In these layered images, the women are harder to see. We lose them in the tangle of overlaid forms. But this is the point. In spite of their invisibility — buried in the palimpsest — Ferran gives them presence.

Box of Birds, Ferran’s most recent body of work, marks a return to this game of hide-and-seek. The 38 psychiatric patients resurface in a set of 38 portraits of women holding rectangular pieces of felt in front of their bodies. In this dyed felt we find the same creases (the same strain) as on the rough fabric worn by the women in the original found photographs. The white lines painted on the felt recall the necklines of those cardigans and the waistlines of the smocks worn underneath.

Together, the women with their felt veils become Chorus. Their faces and bodies are still hidden from view but they are offered a voice. Resurrecting those once voiceless and oppressed patients so many years after their incarceration, Ferran upends prevailing historical narratives. These are women who are meant to be forgotten, but here we find them are revived and re-embodied.

The other photographs in Box of Birds depict figures completely enveloped in sheets of this dyed felt. The bodies are still masked but where they stand erect and immovable in Chorus, here they compress and collapse, folding in on themselves. As it swaddles these twisted bodies, the felt morphs into forms that vaguely resemble birds. This association is only encouraged by the names Ferran has assigned each image. There is the Pale-headed Flycatcher, the Night Whistler and the Tricoloured Sylph — all of them names of imaginary birds.

As metaphoric surrogates for the unknown female psychiatric patients in those archival photographs, these birds retrieve the identity and self-possession the women were denied. In this new work, they not only have a voice, they also have wings.

Excerpt Magazine Issue six: Life Death and Bureaucracy
The Fragile Institution: Anne Ferran’s 1-38 and Box of Birds