Cane Hill Hospital - London [2005] (text and photos by Renée)

The view from the base of the hill, a position which should afford an accurate idea of the hospital's size and layout, offers only glimpses...(once inside the corridors seem to unfold or grow rather than refer to a reasonable scale in the mind's eye). There is no culmination at the end of a corridor; and these structural loops - corridors meeting corridors, wards hedging-in wards - becomes a temporal enclosure too, time kept at bay or held at arm's length.

I found my curiosity constantly piqued by a stray note page, an unopened bill - accompanied in each instance by a jolt of self-disgust as I realised that my presence couldn't be motivated by a selfless desire to understand others. There are no authentic tour guides, and the hospital is not mediated by personal anecdote. Exploration invites no intimacy - except as an act of shared misinterpretation, the patients as mysterious to me as London became to them once ensconced in the world of treatment and illness. What is garnered here bears little semblance to the truth of the place; a reflection only of its continual movement away from its initial function, or indeed any function. What lingers in the memory is the movement of a mesh curtain in a breeze, the patterned shadows of foliage falling over the ornate floral patterns of curling wallpaper; the sound of footsteps just beyond reach - the relief of relocation.

Decay has occurred at disparate speeds across the hospital. Some sections of the corridors are reminiscent of the lives they once shuttled, others are now hazardous dead-ends, boarded off not to protect the building, but to protect the trespassers and security. A dislocated door reading 'do not enter' has in one corridor been laid across an aperture in the floor - a makeshift causeway beneath which unlit tunnels criss-cross.

The grounds of the hospital have long since gone to seed, and so an almost impenetrable thicket of trees and vines have grown flush against the building – even, in places, entangling doorways and penetrating shattered windows. What was once undergrowth has become predominant: an errant flourishing of once-suppressed vegetation.

Beyond the suggestions of animal inhabitancy (the syncopated murmur of mice and squirrels beneath floors or in ceilings; the plangent coo of pigeons) was the evidence itself; the fresh carcass of a kite at the base of a stairwell, the plush red triangle of a lifeless butterfly's folded wings.

The hospital answers the desire to be elsewhere - both from the over-familiar bustle of London, and from its demands to integrate citizens through collective memory (the din of advertising that now stands for culture). Here there are no appeals to remember faces, names, dates, facts. Much of the artwork, simply left strewn across floors, is illegibly signed or else not at all; authorship lost and with it, the illusion that anything can be moored to a steady past.

The effect can be frustrating or liberating - the modern equivalent of the oubliette, a dungeon accessible only through a hatch in a high ceiling. The name literally means 'a place of forgetting'. Walking through Cane Hill, the feeling of an inaccessible outside world becomes the reason for being here - absence as an analgesic. Leaving is as unsettling as stepping out into sunlight once one has become accustomed to the dark.

The hospital is a library for what Pessoa called 'the empty immensity of things': each object appealing to the browser's quest for knowledge, and each refusing any handle, imparting nothing. The hospital is majestically redundant - reduced to rubble in some parts, barely vestigial in others. What is retained is for the large part misleading: the degenerate creation of trespassers and vandals rather than a testament to the hospital as it was.

The tantalising reminders of the outside world (and therefore of the continuation of all aspects of one's former life) undoubtedly cursed many patients to a sentence of supposition - a dislocation from themselves as they were. This was particularly evident in the mundane objects scattered around the wards, above all in Browning/Blake - an open bath bag with blue plastic razorblades, a long-dead Christmas tree, still potted; miscellaneous buttons in a drawer beneath curled Christmas cards dated 1991; unopened letters and notebooks folded back to the first blank page. The indiscriminate hold of disintegration serves as a reminder that simply to occupy space is to be complicit in one's decay, existence engendering ruin (like a wheel spinning out in mud - once fixed, any further movement can only reinforce immobility).

There is a softness to some of the upper wards; details slowly bleaching under the flood of light. The effect is that of an old photograph - the distant bustle of life captured, rather than overridden, by the vibrant flourishes of decomposition.

The chapel in Cane Hill is integrated into the central body of the hospital, along with utilities such as the kitchen and laundry - a key component of this axis of staple and function. It is especially poignant here, since male and female wards span out from either side, its centrality making it unavoidable rather than optional: its offers of redemption an enticement, if not towards sanity, then towards faith.

At one side, I discovered the small window of a confessional booth still covered in black nylon mesh, its presence here impossible not to associate with the patient cells - prayer and not medicine as the palliative, priests and not psychiatrists as the administers.

Asylums could almost be seen as disposal grounds for the vulnerability the results-driven City cannot cope with, and thus rejects. Cane Hill is aptly located on the outskirts of London, as far as possible from progress charts and utilisation; from any location where it might disrupt tenuous notions of civility.

Walking through Canary Wharf recently, drifting between suited men and glacial high-rises, the temperature was one of controlled drollery. Decay is denied entirely (making way for the more acceptable horror of equivalency) and so when I caught sight of the white underbelly of a dead eel bobbing by the jetty, I felt more shock than anything Cane Hill provoked.

The wind will roam

and always will

It will shiver you cold

but never will kill

around it goes

forever it stays

Loosened, the linoleum squares clatter underfoot like counters sliding along a table-top - overlapping and gathering as walkers displace them - memory and pattern eroded through searching.

It is difficult not to become tuned into a state of mind whilst walking these corridors and rooms, or to imagine some affinity with those who once peopled the place. (Documentation follows this pattern of conjecture: lives ennobled and salvaged from the most inconsequential remnants).

[It is not enough that many of these machines have remained ostensibly intact: even something as miniscule as a displaced cog, the quiet oxidisation of bolts, is enough to render a machine defunct - destruction happening out of sight, the slightest misalignment immobilising the whole.]

Fire damage merely seems part of the natural progression of Cane Hill, a gesture of release - walls, doors, partitions lost; barriers falling away to the sky.

Vincent Vanburgh is now no more than a burnt out husk - floor and wall partitions immolated, fusing rooms into one immense hall…(just height and space, floors falling away - specks of rust visible amidst the rubble). As in a church, the light hangs brightly at the window panes but does not seem to traverse the whole space, intense halos flourishing at each casement.

The morgue was perhaps the darkest of all rooms above ground - situated far from the main buildings, surrounded by vegetation and lit mostly through small high panes, the glass was opaque and thicker than that of the wards. On the wall of a small annexe, remnants of plush purple velvet clung to railings. A small table, draped in the same purple velvet, functioned as an altar.

For those who wish for peace - perhaps simply to find shelter to sleep - the hospital becomes a hideaway or sanctuary. Others seek something unfamiliar, and Cane Hill becomes a distorted reflection of normal life; an eidetic image of one's psychological state. The endless rooms represent an eviscerated mental landscape, the most accurate transliteration of loneliness. (and I wish to be alone here; in company the unease reaches fever pitch).