Open Your Mind
by Nico Kos Earle
23 September 2011
Glass visits an exhibition and arts festival at the Old Vic Tunnels – brainchild of artist and Mind ambassador Stuart Semple.
Finding the Old Vic Tunnels can be something of a challenge, in particular if you ask a security guard, shop assistant, cab driver, and butcher in succession for directions and find yourself under Waterloo station wandering through a labyrinth of tunnels sprawling with intensely clashing graffiti to the thumping double bass of trains passing overhead.
Given that I was on my way to the opening of MINDFUL – a provocative exhibition and arts festival curated by Stuart Semple that highlights the symbiotic relationship between mental health and creative output whilst suggesting the cathartic potential of art for both artist and viewer – I wondered if this temporary decent into oppressive disorientation was somehow part of the intended experience. Certainly the rejection I then experienced when, having finally found the entrance, I was barred from entry by a humourless security guard, followed by a lengthy wait in the dark anteroom, did nothing to dispel my general anxiety.
Then Stuart Semple appeared, and let us in. There within the interconnected ambient tunnels was a collection of works beautifully suspended in the perfect order from some of the most talented artists in this country. We were left to wander at our own pace through the exhibition, pausing to interpret at will the magical and terrifying beauty of each piece ranging from Jake and Dinos Chapman’s I Learnt the Hard Way in painted bronze from their Little Death Machines (Castrated) series, past Sarah Lucas’s film The Crucifixion of Sebastian Horsley, to the late Barney Bubbles’ iconic Elvis Costello poster, via Tessa Farmer’s malevolent insect-sized skeleton fairies The Fate of a Magpie.
There I overheard someone likening the suspended line of ants hanging off the back of a fairy creature flying away from the open carcass of a mummified magpie to “an image I once saw of a line of people clinging to the last chopper out of Saigon”. To each his own heart of darkness and interpretation …
At this point we were then herded back to the start of the show and introduced to Stuart Semple by the CEO of the mental health charity Mind, Paul Farmer, who enthusiastically thanked him for spearheading this project. Stuart is disarmingly understated and excusing his tiredness led us straight onto Chapman’s painted bronze which, he explained, stems from the Freudian idea of an orgasm, what are dreams are and what drives us, “which I thought was a good way to start the show”.
Briefly talking us through each piece it became clear that his vision, of curating an exhibition which “endeavours to take the cerebral unseen and remove it from the shadows where it can be viewed in an open environment” was not a melancholy trip into the depths of creative madness but a celebration of how those who have the good luck to channel it creatively can exorcise their demons.
He introduced artist Seana Gavin whose delicate collage Visions of Hell from her exhibition Heaven and Hell was “a way of purging the visuals. There is an overloaded of images in contemporary life: every time you switch on the news you are confronted with natural disasters and horrific scenes, and this was a way of getting it out.”
Then Stuart paused briefly before his own piece and explained plainly, “It’s about the stigma surrounding mental health and how hard I found it to tell people what I was going through. It’s about the dialogue you have with yourself, feeling bad, crossing words out ... my work has always been there for me, got me through it, it’s about the fact that my art helped me.”
Having suffered a violent and undiagnosed allergic reaction at the age of 19 that nearly killed him, Stuart found himself crippled by anxiety and an eating disorder. Having painted since the age of four he sought refuge in his art and created an astonishing cathartic body of 3,000 pictures by the age of 21 which he sold on eBay. Interestingly, whilst this indirect way of first exposing his work resulted in a cult following including high profile fans like Debbie Harry, it also, perhaps unconsciously, avoided the critical gaze and possible rejection of the art establishment: a delicate matter in the context of mental illness.
What is so brilliant about Semple’s exhibition is that, although it includes artists Sebastian Horsley and Barney Bubbles who in Bubbles case eventually took his own life, no longer able to overcome his private torment or handle rejection, and Horsley dying of an overdose at the age of 47, this is emphatically not a collection of works created during controlled art therapy sessions. As Stephen Fry, Mind President, points out “our cultural history is littered with examples of artistic visionaries who have created some of the greatest works of all time while experiencing mental illness ... the archetype of the tortured genius suffering for their art reinforces the perceived link between the darker recesses of the mind and its astonishing capacity for inspiration.”
Semple then introduced the very pregnant Annie Kevans, whose portraits from her exhibition on the Golden Hinde, entitled Ship of Fools highlight history’s fluctuating perspective on madness and its relationship to success, through sketching historic figures who have suffered from mental health issues. “I found it very interesting that you can die, and then people can come and diagnose you after death like Beethoven who is now believed to have been bi-polar.”
This exhibition provokes some very profound questions about our relationship to creative expression and mental instability: why does society elevate certain works of art to iconic status whilst the subject of the artist’s state of mind, and mental illness in general, remains taboo? Part of the answer lies in Sarah Lucas’s documentary The Crucifixion of Sebastian Horsley made when she accompanied Horsley in 2000 to the Philippines where he was crucified. In the context of the Christian tradition this ritual originates from, Horsley went to the very edge of humanity for us, so we don’t have to. It is a powerful illustration of the cathartic potential of art; of artists suffering not just for their art but for our sake.
What was most surprising about my impression of the show was that, in spite of the difficult subject matter, I experienced a calm not dissimilar to the feeling one might get when entering a cathedral with the central image of Christ hanging from a cross above the altar. Possibly because the shared experience of a collection of individuals confronting their innermost fears and darkest places creatively allows for their release and transformation.
Possibly also because the purpose of this project is not only to inspire faith and hope in the restorative powers of art, whilst breaking down the stigmas associated with mental illness, but to also charity. MINDFUL, launching with a gala dinner and auction at the Imperial War Museum, was initiated in order to raise money for the new creative therapies fund within Mind. As Semple clearly states, “The whole point of instigating this fund is to enable others access to the therapeutic potential of creative expression, people who may not have the chance, encouragement, or resources to do so otherwise.”