by Irene Alison (2013)

The first time that I saw my dad crying I couldn’t understand why. He was telling me about a place where men were tied to their beds. And where women wore their hair very long and dishevelled. He was speaking slowly for it would have been better for me not to hear about the things that happened in that place. But he was speaking loud enough for me to remember nowadays his voices crackling. And breaking down into tears. A long time later, I got to that place. Officially closed in 1983, the Leonardo Bianchi Psychiatric Hospital is secured with its huge mass in the center of Naples. 220,000 thousand square meters of pavilions, rooms, corridors, ambulatories in which from 1897 to 1995 – when the Court started an inquiry on hundreds of patients’ unofficial stay in the building 12 years after its closing and when my dad, a psychiatrist, was commissioned to perform the appraisals of their conditions – the stories of what has become the greatest asylum of the South of Italy have been lying dormant. Behind its walls, thousand of souls have lived for more than century. Men and women, sick and healthy, repudiated wives, unwanted brothers, old people that others wanted to prematurely cast aside – they crossed the threshold of the main door never to come back again and to get lost in the city of the mad. Every slight deviation from the norm, every troublesome human being, every undesirable ‘sinner’ could find shelter in here, in a microcosm that is very close to the world, but remote at the same time; and then be forgotten in here. Behind its walls a self-sufficient community, made of a patients, doctors, nurses and nuns, has consumed its own days, repeating its own rites; it has fed a city within the city with its own artisanal studios, its own fields to cultivate, its own churches, its own theaters even: from shoes to bread, from the books that were printed in the typography room to the roses that grew in the director’s garden, everything was created and consumed within the borders of the mental institution. Behind its walls children were born: children of rape and of clandestine loves, consummated in a flurry when out of the harsh scrutiny of the nuns’ vigilant eyes and then torn off their mothers and unofficially adopted by benevolent nurses. Nowadays the Bianchi institute is a ghost town. Its scraped walls and the rust of its gates, its gardens’ riotous and wild nature, its closed rooms and dusty silences, treasure memories as a secret. The Bianchi institute is a maze. It is a mystery. It is a big monument to recollection. It is vertigo between past and present. It is a kingdom of shadows, where the sun comes in to draw sharp bundles of light. It is from my fascination towards this place, from my confused childhood memories and from the mysterious echo that was provoked in me by the word asylum, which my dad pronounced under his breath when I was around, that my need to cross the threshold of the Bianchi institute arises. The possibility of artistically re-reading this place derived, from the community of interests and sensibilities found in a photographer, Lorenzo Castore, whom I have shared motivations and inspirations with. But how could we revitalize the empty spaces? How could we find some sort of non-linear correspondences between the present’s immanence and the act of evoking the past? How could we get the walls to talk? Our answer passed through the creative re-occupation of the asylum and through its free reinterpretation by an acting group composed of psychiatric patients who have put into it their experiences and their ability to perform. The actors improvised a physical script on the grounds of an emotional rewriting of August Strindberg’s The dream: the text helped us emphasize tensions and memories – fear, desire, pain, rage – and translate them into acts, create new interactions with the space, telling them with a gesture, with their presence, with the dialectics that was established between their bodies. Together, the actors have recalled ghosts and lit up new sparks. They have taken off the dust of the years and experienced the soul of the place. The camera that has expressionistically documented the performances, has tried to invent a new territory, in which the border between presence and evocation could be overcome, thus translating emotions into light, form and color. And further building a story about love and discovery, about research and about memory. Along with the pictures, thanks to the composer Emanuele de Raymondi, we have also recorded the sounds of the actions: breaths, laughter, shouts, steps, and whispers. It is an arrangement that works as the vision’s connective tissue, thus enriching the reading of the pictures, in a relationship that can be either synchronic or diachronic.