Lapinlahti mental hospital, Image from Helsinki City Museum: Photographer Roos R.

Lapinlahti mental hospital, Image from Helsinki City Museum: Photographer Roos R.

Kehrääjät / Spinners (2017)

Patient J.

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Has started to spin, slowly.
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(Journals of professor A. Th. Saelan)


The work Spinners is based on the journals of professor A. Th. Saelan, the attending physician of Lapinlahti psychiatric hospital from 1869 to 1904, and text passages picked from them. Situated in Helsinki, Lapinlahti hospital was the first psychiatric hospital in Finland, and it was in operation from 1841 until 2008.

The journals of Saelan precede regularly maintained medical records of the patients, the making of which began in Lapinlahti hospital from 1874 onwards. Saelan’s notes focus mainly on the description of the patients’ symptoms, as was typical in psychiatry at the time. The patients’ symptoms and their observation held more significance than the effects of the patients’ relationships, their life conflicts or childhood experiences had on their being taken ill. *

The work Spinners showcases notes on female patients, in which the descriptions of their most common work task, spinning, are prevalent. In the 19th century, the therapeutic function of work in hospital conditions was not seriously considered, although Saelan does refer to it in some of his texts. Lapinlahti hospital was predominantly a self-sustaining community with its bakeries and gardens, with the work done for free by the healthier patients, alongside paid staff, being an important part of its functioning.

In the notes, the patient’s condition is paralleled by spinning. In the chosen text passages, Saelan describes closely the progress of spinning: is the produced thread fine, rough or uneven. Spinning is also an alternative to compulsion. Instead of being put in a straitjacket, the patients are given the choice of doing spinning, with the condition of doing it “properly.” Alongside describing the work, Saelan notes on the physical condition of the women. Pulse is recorded precisely, as well as periods and other bodily functions. In the notes, the female body and its functions are seen as opposites to working. Working, spinning, can be seen as a representation of Lutherian work ethic, with “proper” spinning referring to a proper woman and her healthy state of mind. On the other hand, female bodily functions can be seen to represent mental issues and illness. Saelan’s notes on the patients can be seen to reflect 19th century “hysteria psychiatry”, in which the female body and its functions such as periods, pregnancies and child births as well as disturbances in these, are a central explanation model to female mental problems. **

In the work Spinners, chosen text passages from the journals of Saelan depicting the state of female patients and a multi-channel soundscape construct a choir of spinners in the gallery space, revealing a piece of the history of the hospital, especially from the female patients’ point of view. The work was exhibited in Gallery Lapinlahti in Lapinlahti hospital in the spring of 2017.


* Kalle Achté, preface in publication Professori A.Th.Saelanin muistikirjat,, ed. Kalle Achté, Helsingin yliopistollinen keskussairaalaliitto  
** Jutta Ahlbeck: Ratkaisuna sterilisaatio: Kansakunnan parasiitit ja naisruumiin uhka, in publication Kipupisteissä: Sairaus, kulttuuri ja modernisoituva Suomi.” (2015), ed. Ahlbeck, Lappalainen, Launis & Tuohela Turku: UTU-kirjat.