China – A Fine Line: Art

China - A Fine Line: ArtIn countries around the world, art work by people with mental illness has developed into a business over the years. But as Haiping Guo sought to bring about China’s first art center featuring the works of this population, he faced great difficulties because of the stigma surrounding mental illness within the country.

Born in 1962 in Nanjing, Guo is a painter and founder of the Prototype Arts Center in Nanjing. In 2006, he decided to stay for three months at Nanjing’s Ancestral Mountain Hospital, a mental institution, where he came upon the paintings by mental patients. As a result, he wrote a report, “Madness of Art: The Chinese Art of Mental Patients.” Two years later, he established the Prototype Arts Center as China’s first art center for people with mental illness. Soon after, Guo planned an art exhibition.

In 2006, on the day Guo left the mental hospital in Nanjing, he organized an exhibition of paintings and clay sculptures created by the patients. The doctors and community members were stunned by the quality of the artwork.

During the course of preparing for the show, and then during the exhibition, everyone had grown close. When the show closed, Guo said goodbye and hugged all the patients who had participated in the show. Everyone
was in tears.

Even one of Guo’s pieces was included. It was called “Tribute to Li Li” about a patient with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities. In the painting, Li Li holds books as if she is reading, and even sometimes holds the books upside down for fun because she liked the Chinese characters. Guo found Li Li’s poses both entertaining and somewhat spiritual.

He called all those patients who submitted art work artists and admired everyone who made the effort to take part in the show.

Guo’s dream has been to find China’s Van Gogh in a mental hospital. He explains: “In my experience those who are very wise, extremely sensitive, and adventurous often conflict with reality. They are more real, have more freedom, and a kind of purity to observe real works of art. And works by those with schizophrenia reflect the highest state of art.”

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Guo was once a man on the verge of madness. His primary and secondary school years occurred during the Cultural Revolution, which he spent dealing with social repression and discomfort. He was singled out as a rebellious youth with long hair and flamboyant clothing, who carried around a boombox blasting Teresa Teng songs.

At 20, Guo was influenced by a group of young painters who motivated him to pursue art. “Every young artist has a special energy and the arts make me excited,” he says. His life back then was rather topsy-turvy: while others slept, he was awake. He painted fanatically through the night and fell asleep as the others were just waking up.

His family thought he was crazy, and grew frustrated when he quit his stable job. He didn’t want them to know that he was painting, so he covered the windows with blankets to block the light. He smoked a lot, and sometimes had hallucinations.

He also had suicidal thoughts on occasion. He would cut himself, and watch the blood drip. Oddly enough, he said the cutting made him feel alive. Many years later, he believes this wasn’t so much an illness, but rather a reflection of his oppressed life.

At 21, he and a friend ran away from home to sneak into Hong Kong, to try to find the feelings of tenderness and freedom he experienced when listening to Teresa Teng’s songs, which were very popular at the time. They took trains and walked to places on the outskirts of Guangzhou, where they were sometimes surrounded by wild dogs. Their journey took them to the Macau border where they came face to face with armed police who made them turn back.

Neighbors felt sorry for his father and would say, “Your younger son is crazy too.” But his father insisted that Guo was not crazy; his older brother Guo Enping was, but not him. When in first grade Guo saw his 14-year-old big brother feverishly reading “Mao” three days and nights, which made him eager to join Mao’s army. But his brother was deemed too excitable, the readings having sent him into a mad state. He was then diagnosed as having schizophrenia and became a resident of the Ancestral Mountain Hospital in Nanjing. For 40 years, medication has rendered his older brother unable to paint.

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Guo saw a relationship between mental illness and artistic creation, and between genius and madness. He wondered if it was crazy to encourage people to make art, and/or if art makes people crazy? Guo wrote a book to explain the impact of various mental disorders. The book reflected on his study of mental illness, which he also wrote about in newspaper articles.

China - A Fine Line: Art

At the time there was no concept in China of popular psychology on the air. But in 1989, the secretary of the Nanjing Youth League came back from Hong Kong and sought to set up a radio show for psychological counseling.

Guo still remembers the first day it went into operation. Word of the show was in the Nanjing Daily newspaper, and at 12 noon it began to accept calls. That day, Guo brought two biscuits to the Youth League office, hoping to eat them before the hotline started. The office staff was anxious because the hotline started ringing before the show even began. The Youth League staff said to him, “Look at what you did! We can’t work like this with the phone constantly ringing.” Guo worked tirelessly until 8 pm that night. At the end of the show, his two biscuits were cold and untouched.

“It was the first time that I realized China had so many psychological disorders,” says Guo. Meanwhile, Guo felt this era of silence and fear of mental illness increased more than any other time. After four years of operating the hotline, Guo finally decided to return to his artistic work as a freelance artist.

Three years later, faced with growing economic constraints, Guo had to borrow the equivalent of about $60,250 to open a distribution artist center in Nanjing’s famous “Banpo Village” café, where he set up an art gallery.

In 2002, for his “Sunbathe” art exhibition, he wore a white lab coat, a stethoscope, and was shown driving an ambulance, with one “Chinese Contemporary Art rescue center” banner, as if he were a doctor for the artist. Later, in 2005, he promoted an art exhibition called “Disease: Today’s Art,” to link the mad, irrational process of contemporary art.

During the exhibition, Guo accompanied two artist friends as they visited Ancestral Mountain’s long abandoned mental hospital ward. They agreed that it could be transformed into an art studio. The Ancestral Hall Hospital was located in the southern suburbs of the scenic hills, where the last two emperors of the Nan Dynasty were buried and close to the famous Hong Jue Temple. Only a wall separates the two from the mental hospital.

Emperor tombs, temples and psychiatric hospitals were all arranged together in a mysterious manner. If the mentally ill, artists and monks all gathered in a house to talk, it would be quite a scene. “We say that the artists and the mentally ill are similar, only one step away from one another, and that the gap between psychiatry and art is, in the end, not that great,” says Guo.

China - A Fine Line: ArtGuo spoke with exhibition sponsor Nie Ying about his ideas of organizing art projects at the hospital. Coincidentally, at the Ancestral Mountain Hospital, Dr. Wang Yu and Guo met during an exhibition and she expressed a passion for the arts as well. She was also skeptical about modern medicine treatments. They both expressed concerns about the way people with mental illness are sometimes looked down upon. Nie Ying promised to help Guo realize his idea of creating an art project in the mental hospital, while Dr. Wang promised to provide assistance.

After 10 months of negotiations, Guo finally received permission to use the hospital in time for the October 10 World Mental Health Day. He arrived carrying a heavy black suitcase, and was formally admitted to the Ancestral Mountain Hospital in Nanjing for a three month stay. When the president took him through the hospital corridor, a patient quietly asked Guo: “Are you a newcomer?”

Despite a good deal of mental preparation, Guo’s first night was disturbing. A female patient’s shrill cry pierced the quiet of the hospital, making sleep impossible. To mitigate his fear, he kept the lights on all night, and listened repeatedly to the Fan Fan song, “Those Flowers” on his computer.

Dr. Wang, who checked each ward daily, asked patients if they were willing to paint. Guo arranged a studio, where more than 700 patients filed into the room, some to ask for a cigarette. Some of them, however, were very interested in actually painting.

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Eventually more than 100 patients began to participate in the project. Guo gave them 56 different kinds of materials to work with, from prepared paper, gouache, and watercolors to colored pencils and clay sculpture.

“I cannot teach them,” Guo says. “I just encourage them to freely express their inner world.” After two rounds of screening, 11 patients ultimately demonstrated “a longterm enthusiasm and showed considerable talent”.

One of the patients, Zhang Ebel, had eyes different from the other patients; their eyes were somewhat lax or sluggish, but Zhang Ebel’s eyes were cunning; he often held his head half bowed, his eyes wandering but secretly observing others. He would tell a joke, making others laugh, yet he does not laugh.

Having only a middle school education, Zhang Ebel had never painted, but he did draw. Guo was surprised by his talent and especially by a series of paintings called “Monsters With a Magnifying Glass.” Guo was clueless about these paintings, but Zhang Ebel explained that they represent his “mind expressing itself.” His art has “a mind of its own,” and reflects “a man of great ability to control the subconscious.”China - A Fine Line: Art

Another patient, Wang Jun, had been a peasant all his life. He used a painting stick with a compass and straightedge, and insisted on painting “useful things.” He painted his lines rough, colorful, often representing agricultural machinery, sluices, harvesters, as well as a train that he’d rode only once in his life. All the paintings are from one perspective, a top view looking down, which makes Guo explain: “Mental patients are accustomed to looking at life from an aerial perspective.”

These patients have no background in art, he asserts, but they picked up a brush and did not hesitate to consider a subject. When Guo asked Dange Ge to paint a fish, she immediately drew a dozen fish, each identified by name.

Guo’s original idea was to collect works of art by people who have mental illness, to study their creations and their spiritual world. Three months later, when interviewed by the media, Guo said he wasn’t “teaching painting to mental patients,” he instead was “observing them paint.”

In 2007, Guo showcased the artwork of 11 patients in Beijing’s famous 798 Art District. It was called “Mania of Art – An Exhibition of Chinese Psychiatric Patients.” This was the first art exhibition of people with mental illness, but the artists didn’t attend the show. Guo explained to the guests: “Please understand, they cannot risk their identity being exposed in the public eye.” So the 70 signatures on the paintings are all pseudonyms.

Guo and the 11 patients’ families had communicated and none of the families were willing to have their real name known, let alone be seen during a debut. “Once in a mental hospital, families have guardianship over the patients who have no right to make their own decisions. And if one day the patient leaves the hospital and returns to the community, there won’t be a stigma attached because people made the association between the mental patient’s art exhibit and the person who has returned home.”

At the exhibition, Guo met Frenchman Post, a native of Paris, France, and an art gallery owner. He dealed in the
Western “raw art,” which is self-taught, and includes artwork by people with mental illness, folk art and children’s art. Both Post and Guo believe art by “normal” people tends to be constrained, whereas the artwork by those with mental illness reflects their true consciousness. In 2005, sales from Post’s gallery was nearly $163,000, with pieces by those with mental illness going for about $16,000 per piece.

Guo and Dr. Wang took the patients’ paintings to Post, who believes that there is room in the art world for works by mental patients. It also allows patients to support themselves, not to mention changing people’s views from scorn and fear to one of understanding and respect.

China - A Fine Line: Art


There are differences between east and west in terms of how art is sold. For instance, patient Wang Ju’s paintings can’t be sold in the art market, because outside the hospital mental patients’ decisions must be exercised by a family member or guardian. Zhang Ebel does not have a guardian at present. And Wang Ju’s brother and wife both rejected the proposal Guo made to help sell Wang’s paintings.

Taking into account the guardian issue, Guo conceived of the idea to build an art ward. He secured grant funds from Jiangsu Welfare Center. Now the hospital’s “Art Zone” is a place where three or four people can paint at the same time.

Dr. Wang, Guo and the patients’ families are worried that the painting campaign will make the patients overly excited and out of control. “We have modern medicine for treatment of mental illness, current drug treatment alone can help with control, while respecting a patient’s needs. Mental patients do not want to be viewed as useless, they want to be of value to the community.”

Guo observed Zhang Ebel, his eyes staring. To allow him to get rid of the negative effects of the anti-psychotic drugs he was on, Guo told Dr. Wang to discuss reducing his medication by a third, so that he could hold his head up, and regain a confident look in his eyes.

In Dr. Wang’s treatment notes, he’d recorded changes in Zhang Ebel since his admission. When he’d first arrived at the hospital, he wanted to commit suicide and attempted several times, and would teach other patients how to commit suicide. But he changed after he became involved in daily art activities. Zhang Ebel began to plan for his future. He wanted to become a portrait artist, and had begun to smile, and started talking, sometimes even joking with patients. He helped frail elderly patients participate in playing cards, chess, chorus and other activities.

According to Guo’s notes, he says of Zhang Ebel that last year’s work compared to “four years ago, he used especially bright colors. Now, the color of the figures are dimmed with emotion.” Under the influence of drugs, Zhang Ebel’s physical strength and passion have greatly diminished. “He had a great body, and now the muscles are atrophied, and he has to take medicine to eat. Even his pen does not move and he wants to sleep all day.”

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“If you take the art away, there’s no meaning. We hope from here to realize that changing the identity of the patients means to get rid of their labels as useless and to become artists,” Guo says. But the cooperation of authorities who said they would help fell through, so they went to the District Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Cultural Affairs Bureau, but they seemed to be at a loss to take on such a project.

As a result, six months later, the “Art Ward” was canceled. Cooperation became too difficult and public hospitals chose to go a private route. Guo remained determined to build a “prototype Arts Center.” Private support also posed a lot of problems, and created hurdles along the way. Authorities believe the project is very good and that they are determined to cooperate, and are willing to provide financial support, but they’re not sure about art in a hospital setting.

Eventually Guo wound up back at District Civil Affairs Bureau, speaking to the deputy director, and hoping for the best. Guo’s wife’s friend helped him find a three-year sponsor.

He finally received a “prototype” approval from Nanjing Jianye District Civil Affairs Bureau, which left Guo in tears of joy that day. He texted the good news to all his friends.


In 1962, the year Guo was born, Frenchman Jean Dubuffet founded “outsider art” an art movement in Paris—the world of self-taught or naïve art. And in 2010, outsider art finally found a home in China.

After the center was established, the first thing Guo wanted to do was to introduce the patients in the Ancestral Mountain Hospital to the new Art Ward. For example, Wang Jun sometimes didn’t have enough strength to pick up a pen. But four years ago, he created a series of mechanical totems that made Guo excited. Long-term hospitalization and medication had originally eroded his ability and desire to create.

“If patients are too medicated, then they’re too out of it; their hands make no effort, their mouth drools, their mind is blank, and they just want to sleep.” But the patients are expected to follow the doctor’s orders or encounter insurance problems.

Every day Guo receives telephone calls, mostly from families of the mentally ill asking about the new art situation. Guo is still looking for their first resident artist.

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People with intellectual and cognitive disabilities have come to the center a few times; they liked to use large blocks of color, stripe painting, and make pictures where the color is “purely warm.”

But not all patients can freely enter at their own will. Lee Teng, for example, who has schizophrenia, is strongly hoping to draw. His brother, however, is unwilling to “expose his psychiatric history and leave the family open to embarrassment”; he thus forbade Lee Teng to come. Guo cried and said to Lee Teng’s brother, “At least give him a chance.” Eventually, the three parties agreed to allow Lee Teng to stay at the center for a month to try it out.

In 2007, the World Health Organization Global Forum for Community Mental Health was held in Geneva. The conference sent a strong message to all countries that there was an urgent need to provide a network of community mental health services, so that long-term psychiatric hospital inpatient rehabilitation allows those affected to have their rights protected, including the right to speak and to cultivate a social life. It was advised “for the artistic talent of a mental patient, to let them draw, so painting can flow, reflecting the economic value of their art, spiritual values and socio-cultural values.”

Guo keeps in mind what the writer Cheng once wrote in an article: In the United States, he’d met a friend who shook his hand and said, “Hello, I have mental illness.” Guo wishes his artists will one day be able to reach out to others and say, “Hello, I am an outsider artist.”

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.

Read more articles from the Jamie Brewer – “American Horror Story” Issue.

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