In The Looney Bin, John McRae’s most recent photographic series, two solitary models in various stages of undress respond directly to the camera. Each model enacts a sequence of disturbing emotions. In the different portraits of Tommi and Ali, a lone figure is alternatively shown as lost in a shadowy world of make-believe, or closely engaged with the artist. Staged inside the abandoned psychiatric ward of Rozelle Hospital in Sydney, the series also depicts courtyards, offices and bathrooms devoid of recent human presence, littered with discarded medical files, disused equipment and broken surgical appliances. The paint peels from the walls. Graffiti has been sprayed in the corridors. What was once sterile and sanitised is now dilapidated and dusty, tainted by what McRae refers to as “the smell of incarceration”.
In his grainy prints in gritty colour, McRae explores the themes of privacy, intimacy and exposure, both emotional and psychological. He captures a microcosm of dishevelment. With their muscles and tattoos worn like badges of dubious honour, Tommi and Ali reveal their raw personality traits, mixing sensuality with paranoia, aggression with tomfoolery. Posing in what was once a site of imprisoned insanity, one model wears an orange night-dress, the other cheekily wears a dirty, white hospital gown.
“It is part of my study of how we cloak ourselves and how I use clothes as a metaphor for identity, a device previously explored in my Undressed series. In the photographs at Ward 17, the orange garment worn by the model certainly expresses the identity of an insane person. He confronts the concept of insanity, an area most people try to avoid. That’s why we usually lock it away.
“This series is also influenced by my experiences growing up, visiting my father in a mental institution, leading me to pose the question who is actually insane. In a way, our society today can be seen as an open asylum, particularly if you look at how we treat each other. So this is my psychological investigation of the isolation of the model in his particular environment. It’s a comment on the individual, caught up in his own fantasies and delusions, both joyful and tormented.”
It is also a clear demonstration of McRae’s own working methods, whereby over a period of time, he creates a scenario and then documents the results. How each model expresses his emotions is a direct consequence of the environment in which he finds himself. His response is a series of invented emotions which, in McRae’s photographs, helps to create a heightened sense of reality.