Brief Encounters

A surge in creative activities such as drawing, crocheting, pottery, knitting and painting has highlighted the positive impact of art on our mental well-being

IN THE LAST YEAR I have seen several exhibitions exploring challenging interior mental states as if curators were revealing for us some exotic new cultural landscape; ill is ‘the new black’. While for those in the art world’s curatorial and management elite this topic may feel like a novel and intellectually enticing exercise that taps into the Zeitgeist, for the rest of us, the experience can be….well… distressing. The cumulative power of really good art works exploring issues of emotional trauma and conflict is strong medicine.

There are ways and means of doing it well. Radio Ballads, a spring 2022 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery North was an excellent example because the four artists’ films framed four very different communities’ experiences of mental and physical trauma with incredible respect and care, leaving us feeling that those people had been truly listened to and supported by both the process and the resulting work. In autumn 2022, public art pioneers Artangel commissioned artist Marcus Coates to produce five films about psychosis, which seemed to be in questionable taste (The Directors). Although Coates has done serious research, spending many years shadowing therapists who were treating those suffering with psychosis, and he had even consulted the sufferers he imitated in his five films, at times you were acutely aware you were watching a privileged, healthy, middle-aged man mimicking what it felt like to be mentally ill – and the more extreme the symptoms, the more it veered towards tasteless and awful parody. What the residents of Churchill Gardens, a mid-20th century Pimlico housing estate where the films were displayed, thought, I’d love to know. I left the screening of just two of them feeling angry and shaken, as if a desperately difficult mental condition was being exploited purely for its shock value.

However, the art world fascination prevails and so I found myself, on a dreary Thursday in February, visiting ‘Divided Selves: Legacies, Memories, Belonging’, at the Herbert Gallery in Coventry. It all sounded supportive and intriguing on the introductory panel. ‘This exhibition explores ideas of belonging and togetherness through the work of 26 artists and collectives. The artworks…make visible the physical, cultural, civic, political and symbolic infrastructures that shape and hold space for community.’ That wasn’t my experience: I came out of the show feeling more divided and disenchanted with the world than when I went in.

‘Violence and the Nation State’ was the subheading for the first gallery, with works exploring war and geopolitics as they have impacted around the globe. Three portraits by Lubaina Himid glow on the left-hand wall, from her Lost Election Posters series (2014/15). Th e word ‘vote’ is written on the clothing of a portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the Haitian Revolution – a reminder for viewers to use the democratic tools available to them. In the centre hangs Larry Achiampong’s Pan African Flag for the Relic Travellers’ Alliance (Ascension). It’s one of a series of four imagined flags, each of which features 54 stars to represent the 54 countries in Africa. But their power lies in us knowing how fragmented and disparate these countries are. Nearby, Bloodlines, an installation made collaboratively by Iftikhar Dadi and Nalini Malani, Pakistani and Indian artists respectively, picks out in red sequins the ‘Radcliffe Line’ of partition – another British-inspired colonial intervention – which separated Pakistan and India forever. This is just one of many works reminding us what a terrible impact the British have had on the world, resulting in ongoing hostility and violence.

Near the far wall, Rene Mati’s Moonstomp is a figure dressed in a black and red striped tank top (inspired by the Beano character Dennis the Menace), as part of a ‘skinhead’ outfit which is meant to reflect the multi-racial working class movement of Two Tone music which exploded in the midlands in the early 1980s but then became violently co-opted by white racists. Hmm… ‘Belonging and togetherness’? Not seeing much of it so far.

A pale tapestry called Make Tofu Not War by Goshka Macuga glows at the far end of the gallery. It might imply an element of humour, but there’s nothing funny about a scene where people dressed as animals (wolf, reindeer, polar bear) are gathered in a forest to protest something. These white-suited characters are hunched, sprawled or slumped across a scene of felled trees and placards resembling tombstones; if anything, it looks like a crime scene, or post apocalyptic reportage. Yes, human culture has proved toxic for plants and animals. Tell us something we don’t know.

Mona Hatoum’s A couple (of swings) could be viewed as a metaphor on the oppression of Palestinians by Israel since 1948. Image Credit: Garry Jones Photography  

Beside it, two prints by Said Adrus show displaced burial pavilions for those Indian soldiers who were wounded while serving in the British Army in the First World War, but died while hospitalised in Brighton. Initially buried at Woking Mosque, thanks to vandalism, these memorials were moved to the Commonwealth Burial Site at Brookwood Cemetery, which is where these photos were taken. It’s a powerful statement demonstrating our lack of community cohesion and tolerance.

On the opposite wall are two large, colour prints by Chloe Dewe Matthews, Shot at Dawn. They were, literally, photographed at sunrise, but they also depict sites around West Flanders, where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice. The caption helpfully tells us that many of these men were probably suffering from terrible PTSD, and were incapable of fighting. But they were shot nonetheless.

In a cheery yellow room beyond this gallery is a far from cheery work: Mona Hatoum’s A couple (of swings). Two swings made of glass plate are suspended together, on chains. I am told by the curator, Hammad Nasar (MBE), that it’s ‘a visual metaphor for the fragility of togetherness…If either was used, they would both shatter.’ As Hatoum is a London-based artist of Palestinian heritage, this could be read as a statement on her homeland’s oppression by its neighbouring Israeli state, or just the fragility of relationships. It’s heartbreaking, either way.

And so the misery continues: endless artworks detailing man’s inhumanity to man – and women. In one of Donald Rodney’s two photographs on light boxes, we have footballer John Barnes kicking a banana off the football field (part of the taunting he received by Liverpool fans, on being accused of being gay, despite having been voted their best ever player just months before).

One of the overriding themes of the exhibition are the challenges we all face as a result of ethno-nationalism and the conflict it breeds. Image Credit: Garry Jones Photography  

The only light relief in this whole exhibition comes at the furthest end of the galleries where two screening rooms show two very different but equally mesmerising films. Jane and Louise Wilson’s Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard reveals the artists’ journey, made in August 2000, to the Baikonur Cosomodrome in southern Kazakshstan, where the Russian space programme stores its rockets. On four huge screens, the artists reveal the extraordinary scale and grandeur of these rockets, panning back occasionally to also show the absurdity of their situation (particularly the culminating shot, of camels wandering around an abandoned part of the site).

Fiona Banner’s Pranayama Organ is a hilarious and wonderful meditation on weaponry, subverting all the usual macho imagery with the phallic inflation and deflation of two blow-up black fighter jets. While gently respiring and exhaling on a beach, they seem wonderfully mammalian, ridiculous. When two dancers don the inflatable fighter jets and proceed to dance a slow and courtly dance, it is indescribably tender.

The upshot of my experience was to want to give a wide berth to any shows promising to ‘hold space for community’ in the near future. I am not sure that was the desired impact of this fashionable form of art therapy. As a result, I’d like to call for moderation in the prescribed dosage.

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