Folie A  Deux

Two artists, both with a history of mental illness, unite to explore a madness shared by two in Folie à Deux. Paula John and Lisa Anita Wegner explore and redefine their pasts to create a performance and video work that challenges our society’s way of thinking about mental illness.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Folie à Deux (in French literally “shared madness”) is a, “delusion or madness shared by two people in close association.” This project takes the concept of Folie à Deux as a starting point in the context of two artists who each have histories of mental illness, and asks, what would happen if we were to put the parameters in place for a creative Folie à Deux?

Artists Paula John and Lisa Anita Wegner both have lengthy histories battling mental illness, and exploring the therapeutic potentials of arts creation. In 2002, at age fifteen, John suffered a major mental breakdown and was subsequently diagnosed with severe clinical depression. The next few years of her life were characterized by multiple inpatient stays in psychiatric wards, suicide attempts, plenty of therapy, and an existence in a drug-induced fog while doctors struggled to work out the correct “cocktail” of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Unable to concentrate on anything else, John poured herself into artistic projects. Perhaps one of the most terrifying things in life is to lose control over one’s own mind, and creating art allowed John to at least have control over something – that which she was creating.

In 2008 Wegner was diagnosed with complex-post traumatic stress disorder. For the next year, she didn’t leave her house and existed in a dissociated state, dependent on a friend who acted as her caregiver. One year after her initial diagnosis, she was finally accepted into the trauma therapy program at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto (which she is still affiliated with). It was here that she discovered art therapy. Of this, Wegner wrote on her personal blog, “It’s weird, the more anxious I am, the more art that I make – before there were days I couldn’t create anything if I tried, and now I cannot stop. It was a really crappy pathway, but what a gift for an artist. It dawned on me that this was the way back – art saved my life – literally.”

Both John and Wegner credit art with saving their lives. It was through their artistic practices that they met this past year, and instantly bonded over their shared experiences and the similarities in their stories. It was also a meeting of kindred sprits; both highly theatrical, they found in each other someone who matched themselves in speed, volume, and intensity. This mirroring of each other is reminiscent of the concept of folie à deux; the recognition of one’s own madness in the Other. Because of the similarities in their approaches to arts creation, these two artists are excited to see what would happen if they are given the opportunity to collaborate, feed-off-of, and amplify one another. 

One of the key themes explored in Folie à Deux is the performance of mental illness. This concept is rooted in a Performance Studies understanding of identity as something that is performed – through gesture, language, and visual cues such as styling – rather than being an innate quality. Questions explored through the work will include: how is mental illness “performed”? What are the visual and performative tropes of mental illness in our culture; in other words, how do we see mentally ill people represented through media, and what do we expect someone who is mentally ill to look and act like? The trope of the “crazy artist” is one ripe for exploration. On the other hand, how do people with mental illness sometimes “pass,” that is, appear in other areas of their lives to not be mentally ill? Despite their long documented histories with mental illness, John and Wegner have both forged successful professional careers in the realms of academia and curatorial practice, respectively. How might they be treated differently when they appear in public with unwashed hair and bodies, disheveled clothes, and vacant eyes, as opposed to being in smart business suits and carefully coiffed styles? What is at stake when we present only the performance of “passing”? How does this affect the person suffering behind the “mask” of professionalism, and how might this further contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness? 

There is also a strong contemporary discourse surrounding the feel-good narrative of “recovery.” By all accounts, John and Wegner are both far along their “paths to recovery,” thriving personally, professionally, emotionally, and artistically. At the same time, there is an understanding that mental illnesses are diseases that can never be cured, but rather treated, or managed. Thus, the project will also explore how recovery itself is “performed.” What does it look like to be in “recovery”? When institutions place an emphasis on narratives of recovery (“success stories!”), how might this erase the liminal state of mental illness, in which one might go back and forth between being profoundly sick and thriving, often repeatedly during a lifetime?