Veronica Simpson reflects ‘On Happiness’, the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition
AS ANY REGULAR reader of this column will know, I’m a big fan of the Wellcome Collection: I have sung the praises of its wonderful reading room space (designed by AOC) in this magazine, as well as the thought-provoking exhibitions they programme. As an organisation that first made its money from inventing pharmaceuticals, the Wellcome Foundation now offers vital funding and a forum for research into how human health and wellbeing is impacted by factors not just chemical but psychological, cultural and sociological. What’s more, over the past 20 years, its exhibitions have set the standard for incorporating – and often commissioning – contemporary art to inform and enhance the topics under discussion.
So I was really looking forward to the opening of the 2021 season, with the theme ‘On Happiness’ – a precious commodity, the presence or absence of which most of us are more attuned to than usual at the moment.
The show’s publicity claims: ‘In this period of great instability, escalating infectious diseases, ecological concerns and rising levels of anxiety and depression worldwide, Wellcome Collection examines the ways in which people find resilience, hope and even joy at times of duress.’
My hopes were high as I entered Gallery 1, which is dedicated to the first of the exhibition’s two themes: ‘Tranquillity’. There are certainly treats in store, the foremost for me being a dark sequence of rooms hosting Chrystel Lebas’ multi-sensory installation Regarding Forests. It features her long-exposure photographs of different, ancient woodlands – so vivid, they seemed almost three-dimensional – combined with an aromatic diffusion spreading throughout the space, evoking a gentle, simulated scent of a forest floor after rain. Soft, tree stump-like stools are provided for extended contemplation. I also appreciated Toby Glanville’s photographs of allotments; bathed in warm, late afternoon summer sunlight, they absolutely radiated that wellbeing and satisfaction to be had from a day spent in good weather, in the open air, tending to plants and appreciating nature.
Harold Offeh’s Joy Inside Our Tears explores the relationship between happiness and sorrow. Image Credit: HAROLD OFFEH
But I was troubled by the work that opened this exhibition: a cave-like installation by Jasleen Kaur, with ambient soundtrack, screens depicting yogic or meditative exercises, and a softly glowing fake crystal at its centre. Titled My Body is a Temple of Gloom, the installation references the once esoteric but now mainstream practices of yoga and meditation, but does so in such a way as to foreground not their enormous and proven benefits but the ways in which they are being co-opted and monetised by the burgeoning wellbeing industry, exploited by social media and wearable tech. Kaur is right: we should not be equating happiness with the acquisition of dubiously extracted crystals or the number of likes your latest tree pose garnered on Instagram. But some balanced perspective would have been good – for example, a delve into the impressive research that has shown how these ancient arts and disciplines can boost mental and physical health. It’s a topic the Wellcome Collection has shed light on very effectively before, in the 2015 exhibition ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’.
I know the role of art is to provoke as well as seduce and enlighten, and the work selected delivers on all those fronts. But I found myself missing the Wellcome’s usual balance of science and cultural anthropology to go with it. And this was also true of the exhibition upstairs, on ‘Joy’.
I was surprised to be told that there had been a deliberate decision to reduce the amount of contextual text, along with scientific or anthropological objects, taken by the curators Laurie Britton Newell and George Vasey, after the show was postponed from its scheduled summer 2020 slot. Vasey explains: ‘It was a very different show that we planned for last year… We changed a huge amount of the narrative. We took about 30% of the material out of the exhibition.’ Initially there was more focus on the philosophies of happiness through the ages, and different theories on the construction of emotion – both of which might have helped to place our current worries in perspective. There is additional scientific content, but Vasey tells me they decided to disseminate it via the show’s audio guides, for access reasons. But what I expect from the Wellcome is depth as well as breadth, and I like to experience that balance in real life, not have to spend half my visit listening to expert soundbites via QR codes on my phone.
‘On Happiness’ comprises two exhibitions, ‘Tranquillity’ and ‘Joy’. Image Credit: WELLCOME COLLECTION
As for the exhibition upstairs, there was a moderate amount of joy there, primarily in the wonderful cartoons of David Shrigley, whose spidery drawings and po-faced captions are so good at lampooning human behaviour. Harold Offeh’s excruciating and funny Smile was also a highlight: an early video piece where Offeh tries to maintain a big grin for the entire duration of the song ‘Smile’ (crooned by Nat King Cole). But there is little joy in Offeh’s commissioned work for this show, Joy Inside Our Tears: a multiscreen film showing individuals dancing to a soundtrack we can’t hear; the quiet, growling, noise that goes with it gives us no clue to the rhythm, neither do the dancers’ moves, as they are all out of sync. These movements are meant to be disturbing – these dancers were told to emulate people passing out, collapsing or shaking, very much with the events of last summer and the Black Lives Matter protests in mind. An important work on a vital issue, absolutely, but maybe an exhibition about joy isn’t the ideal showcase for it?
Vasey tells me the show is about ‘disrupting what people expect. The restorative experience of a museum is crucial but we also want people to critically examine where and how emotion is constructed. We are trying to attack this monolithic term “happiness”’.
Perhaps it’s just me, but at this point in our still ongoing pandemic experience, I would have appreciated a balance veering more towards wisdom, nourishment and guidance, rather than provocation – the past 18 months has provided more than enough of that.