'People often observe that the world is an irrational place, though it is more accurate to say that it is we humans that make it so. There are many intelligent people today who seem to sincerely believe that coal is clean.'
The idea of an issue of 'Artlink' exploring the tension between reason and emotion in humans through the work of artists led me to seek out and invite psychologists and psychiatrists to explore the area of relationships. These professionals deal daily with people and the problems they experience when there is conflict between the rational mind, which tells us to act on what is known and commonly agreed, and the emotions which can throw events and relationships into a maelstrom of imagination.
In attempting to address aspects of the rational/emotional nexus and its reflections in art, questions arose: is there an art vehicle outside the cinema which does justice to such a complex set of meta-emotions? How does the stretched sinew between rationality and the emotions manifest in works of visual art? The research in this issue may offer some tentative answers.
In her keynote essay, psychologist Doris McIlwain talks of 'emotional labour'. This is people exerting control over their emotional responses so that they can function in everyday situations like dealing with difficult customers or your boss. She also tells us that emotions are an ‘intuition pump’ and without regularly exercising their full range we fail to lay down vivid recollections of our life experiences, we live ‘palely’.
Artists are generally typed as the kind of people who acknowledge and exercise their emotions, without which they would not be able to reach deep into the psyche to find forms which will speak to others. It seems possible these days that emotional labour is close to what artists do. Instead of using emotions as the trigger for say expressionist paintings they unpick the layers and threads of memories and sensations and use them to represent the radical changes that humankind is working through today. Events as far removed sociologically as gender reassignment and familial honour killings can appear in the same news broadcast. We are surrounded by tribalism, urban and otherwise, the forming of new kinds of families, bands of singles, coupling and uncoupling, child-rearing and split households. Being part of diasporas of various kinds, away from our motherlands, from our progeny, from our elders, is now not the exception but the norm. We see societal groups made up entirely of the very old, as seen in some Japanese villages. We see new attitudes to mental illness such as autism and bi-polar conditions. A massive cult of beauty and youth stares down the naked reality of the typical human body.
Clinical psychiatrist Dawn Barker and psychology researcher Eliza Muldoon agreed to think their way through bodies of strong new art made by Toni Wilkinson and Astra Howard respectively. Having approached some of the art writers in this issue with a novel commission, to think like a shrink, Hannah Mathews’ confessional chat with Sanja Pahoki turned out to only need a switch from coffee shop banquette to couch. Janet Maughan’s long sessions with Ann Newmarch reveal an emotional life lived in full glare. As Pat Hoffie talked to William Kentridge on the phone, he spoke of waiting for the work to find its own direction while his brain and body create the right conditions, and while he talked he paced and circled. Stephanie Radok’s ambition - to address two ‘cases’ in the same breath, brings us a rich juxtaposition of Richard Billingham’s caged animals and trapped humans with Patricia Piccinini’s so vulnerable and yet monstrous human/animal bodies. Robert Cook assumes another take on Boris Eldagsen, less as his ‘subject’ than as his fantastical alter ego.
Want to make friends and have fun? Close yourself up in a small room most of the day and night for a year or two and create a version of yourself (possibly much younger and of the opposite sex) who moves around on a screen, chats to other similar chimeras about things of mutual interest and tries to avoid being molested by them. This is Second Life, patently more art than life, as related by Charity Bramwell and Daniel Mounsie. The friendships were a bonus.
The reason that women are veiled is, according to feminist Muslims, because of men’s fear of losing control when they see a non-veiled female, effectively giving women in Muslim society greater sexual power than men – as claimed in Catherine Wilson’s account of her meeting with courageous artist Raeda Sadeeh in the Occupied West Bank this year. In a remote Aboriginal community, as related by Henry Skerritt, as the men are taken by alcohol and disease, responsibility for painting the designs has for the first time been handed from male to female elder, a seemingly rational decision to ensure that the culture survives.
In the male-dominated world of contemporary art there is a global cluster of exciting new shows by women artists: 'elles@pompidou', the current rehang of the Pompidou Collection, sans male artists; 'Global Feminisms' at Brooklyn Museum and WACK at MOCA in LA; 'The Body in Women’s Art Now' at Rollo in London and Cambridge. This is a heartening sign that more diverse ways of seeing and being are being embraced as a key to the cultural ecology we need right now.