Mental Vulnerability Within The Artistic Process
Within my research I have found that my interests have been drawn towards the idea of ‘The Madness in Art’ and all its complexities. Throughout the history of art, mental health has been perceived to play a role within the practice and work of many artists. Struggling to find the thread of what I want to discuss, I have narrowed things down to one aspect of this intriguing and very expansive subject, ‘Mental Vulnerability within the Artistic Process’.
As an artist with a history of mental vulnerability, I am interested in looking at the effects of this subject within my practice, and its manifestation in my work. Mental vulnerability has appeared to be the catalyst for creativity for numerous artists. I want to look into the vulnerability that often appears to come hand in hand with an artistic life, by reflecting upon my own practice, and analysing and dissecting my work and processes and the vulnerabilities I experience day to day.
I am also interested in questioning in what ways mental vulnerability impacts on the artistic practice of other artists, by reflecting upon the lives and works of, Tracey Emin and Yayoi Kusama, both of whom appear to be effected by mental health issues and vulnerabilities.
I consider my art to be spiritually led, investigating the human condition, drawn from my life experiences and the lives of others I have felt empathy with. From childhood I suffered from feelings of alienation, being and feeling different from those around me. My sexuality was possibly a catalyst for these feelings of alienation and, in my formative years, I kept my true identity a secret from the world around me.
I drew and painted from an early age, finding art to be my sanctuary, somewhere of my own, a place of escape from the world around me, a world I found harsh and frightening. These early feelings of detachment possibly gave rise to my interest in biographical and autobiographical material, in an attempt to find a simpatico with others who felt and experienced life in a similar way to myself.
Within my practice, I have discovered that moving away from autobiography to a biographical interest in, for example, the dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, the empathy I felt for the mental state of the dancer offered me the opportunity to reflect on my own vulnerabilities as an artist. Nijinsky’s autobiography, ‘The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky’ (2006), a publication in which Nijinsky documents the six and a half weeks of his life as his grasp on reality was slipping away from him and he was entering psychosis, gives a fascinating insight into his thoughts. This reading led to a current studio investigation: with the working title, ‘Insects and Parrots - a work in progress’, a culmination of film and sound recordings using selected text, in no chronological order, extracted from Nijinsky’s diary.
Still from ‘Insects and Parrots - a work in progress’ D. Dickinson (2020)
The title comes from an anecdote about Nijinsky; he was once asked what he loved best in the world. Nijinsky laughed and replied that he loved insects and parrots. (Moore, 2013)
It was within this project that I began my engagement with text. I became conscious of my employing the words of others to convey my own feelings. This use of text also encouraged me to reengage with my own writing. Through the use of creative writing and stream of consciousness as a writing exercise, I am beginning to develop new ways of expressing mental vulnerabilities in an artistic form.
I began with an exercise in creative fictional writing. In this exercise I began with the lines I had previously extracted from the Nijinsky diary to embark on creating a conflicting conversation between two characters, the voices of Vaslav Nijinsky and the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, then proceeded with the introduction and intertwining of my own writings. This exercise opened the door to the use of my own fictional writing, something that previously I had only engaged with once before in my art practice.
Below is something I wrote recently in response to an unexpected traumatic mental experience. As the panic began to subside I instinctively reached for my laptop and began to write:
Saturday 20th February 2021
I’ve just experienced what I think was a panic attack. I felt I couldn’t breathe. Like my head was about to explode. Like a pressure cooker about to blow its lid. I thought about all sorts of things, all at once, and I couldn’t cope. I felt like I was losing my grasp on reality.
I began trying to attach these feelings of despair to all the daily problems and worries that are all parts of my existence. I called for help, as I was afraid, afraid I was going to collapse, pass out, or even worse. I tried to slow my breathing but the panic kept returning coming over me in waves, like I was drowning in the atmosphere. ‘Hold on’ I thought, ‘hold on’ I said out loud over and over. Telling myself that, like everything else these feelings will pass.
I haven’t experienced anything like this for many years. I thought I had passed ever revisiting this place again. Now here it is, taking control of me again, taking me back to the place I thought I’d left way behind me. I have been looking into my past within relation to my work, and viewing it as a period I almost no longer relate to, as if my past was something that happened to someone else. Then suddenly, I felt as if I were back there, back in that place I thought I’d left far behind. This episode has caused me much confusion and encouraged me to ask myself questions, such as, should I have not opened the door to these memories, has this investigation been a catalyst to the overwhelming array of emotions that I have just experienced, was all that emotion bubbling under and somehow I lit the touch-fuse.
On later reflection, I realised these are very difficult times and I doubt I am alone in experiencing such emotions. These feelings did eventually pass and I have stopped myself from any further self-analysis. This distancing from the emotions and extreme vulnerability I felt has enabled me to reveal this extremely personal piece of writing that has an honesty and a spontaneity that I have never revealed verbally in my work before.
This leads me into discussing the work of Tracey Emin. Recently I was invited to the private viewing at The Royal Academy in London of ‘The Loneliness of the Soul’ an exhibition by Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch. This was at a time when viewing was very restricted due to the current Covid-19 situation, and guests were all given time slots to visit. I mention this because I found it interesting how different the experience was, by being, for the most part, alone whilst viewing the exhibition.
Of particular interest to me was the painting, ‘I am The Last of my Kind, 2019’. I was captivated by Emin’s use of text in this painting and the free form of expression. The words are almost scribbled across the canvas and appear to be a stream of consciousness. The picture shows us a naked female figure, that appears forcefully executed, with a thin blueish-green line, and seems to be rather aggressively overpainted with a soft thin pink loose paint. The words are evocative, and hand written, appearing almost scrawled across the canvas from left to right either side of the figure. At first glance the words look as if they are running down the canvas, but on closer examination, it appears that the lines are purposefully drawn down from the bottom of the text, and also from the figure, evoking a spontaneity and a sadness to the piece, giving an impression that the picture is running down the canvas, yet also creating an allusion that the figure is ascending. I’m not sure that I find the picture aesthetically pleasing, yet it is filled with emotion and honesty that gives a feeling of empathy for the piece and its creator.
Royal Academy (2021)
In an interview with TalkArt podcast Emin spoke about how this ‘coming together of the artists works’ had been a lifelong ambition (TalkArt, 2020). She also said that until now the exhibition had sat empty as we had just emerged from the second Covid-19 lockdown. She also talked about the fact that she enjoyed having the exhibition to herself, and that if the public never saw it, it was still possibly the greatest experience in her career (Talk Art, 2020). I found this statement interesting in that for all her success and the current state of her health, she is extremely committed to her art and her work appears to be more important to her than the success of the exhibition in terms of viewers. Having the advantage to experience the exhibition without hordes of people and standing alone in the exhibition space, enabled me the opportunity to grasp some understanding of what she was saying. In her work Emin appears to be more than willing to reveal herself, her innermost thoughts, and her vulnerability. In the Royal Academy’s virtual tour of the show Emin discusses how her work is about heartbreak, jealousy, fear, sickness and about the soul (Royal Academy, 2020). These emotions are evident in both her and Edvard Munch’s works and the exhibition reveals, even though they were born one hundred years apart, a true feeling of empathy between these two artists, and also between their works. The paintings come across as seamlessly interwoven together and appear to speak the same deeply emotional language.
Looking at a previous exhibition of Emin, the installation ‘A Fortnight of Tears’ at the White Cube Gallery in Mayfair, part of the exhibition invites us to observe a two-week period of Emin’s life when suffering insomnia. The fifty photographic prints, showing her face as she lay in bed suffering fatigue from the insomnia, allows us to see her as she really is. I find it interesting how Emin once again appears willing to reveal herself to the public, exposing herself to public opinion. I am curious as to whether this is how she deals with her own insecurities and vulnerabilities. The bed is often a place of retreat when suffering occurs, this I know from personal experience, a place where we can attempt to retreat from the world when our emotions are overpowering. Emin says about the work that it is about heartfelt emotions, rooms full of true emotion, and that it is not something pretty you can take away, it is about something you feel (Elephant Art, 2020). This gives me a feeling of empathy with this work, having experienced similar circumstances in my past.
White Cube (2019)
Whilst discussing Emin I feel compelled to reflect briefly on the work that made Tracey Emin a household name, ‘My Bed’ (1998). When first becoming aware of this installation of Emin’s own unmade bed, with all its paraphernalia, it was not something that I initially felt any connection with. Having previously seen many beds in domestic settings that looked similar to this one it held little if any interest for me. Several years later on my travels I came across ‘My Bed’ in a gallery. My interest in the work suddenly grew, finding it interesting to see the transformation of the very ordinary when taken out of its context and presented in a gallery space. Looking at the paraphernalia around the bed of used tissues, cigarettes, ashtray with cigarette butts and discarded underwear evoked a somewhat uncomfortable voyeuristic experience, as if looking at something that should remain private. Viewing the bed felt like an engagement with an extremely revealing autobiography. I was interested once again how Emin was prepared to reveal her innermost self for public scrutiny.
I have also been looking at the life and work of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. From 1977, by her own choice, Kusama lived in a mental institution. Kusama said that she had dark days and unfortunate times, but overcame them with the power of art (Healy, 2016). I feel an empathy with Kusama ’s statement that she transformed her trauma into art, and that she hopes her work can make the world more peaceful and bring positivity to the world (Tess in the city, 2020).
I was interested to read this statement from a blog by Bethlem - Museum of the mind, having never previously come across the term ‘Outsider Artists’: The retrospective reinterpretation of Kusama’s work by critics was fuelled by an interest at the time in psychiatric art in Japan and Kusama became a poster child for ‘Outsider Art’ (Volunteer, date unknown). This leads me to touch briefly upon the subject of ‘Outsider Artists’. The arts documentary, ‘Turning The Art World Inside Out’ hosted by Alan Yentob, tells us that ‘Outsider Artists' appear to be more connected with their inner monologue than the connection with the dialogue of art history usually experienced by other artists. Looking at the works of the so called ‘Outsider Artists’ one can really appreciate the originality of these works, made by people that invariably have little to do with the ‘Art World’ and all it complexities and possible restrictions on artistic process. I found it interesting that the artists in this group are for the most part only interested in the process and production of making art and not where it leads, not the fame and fortune that a large percentage of the art world appear to be in search off (Turning The Art World Inside Out, 2013).
Looking at some of these so called ‘Outsider Artists’ I was interested in observing their process. It would appear as if they were possibly connecting with what Romain Rolland called the ‘Oceanic State’ (Maharaj, 2017). This is something I have considered within my practice for many years without realising. I have looked at the theories of Carl Gustav Jung and the ‘Collective Unconscious’, trying to find an explanation for the state of clarity I experience (Jung, 1971). Having read about the ‘Oceanic Feeling’ I now feel it gives a clearer description of the feeling I experience when working in my studio, predominately when working on canvas or working with clay.
For me this oceanic state often begins with a somewhat ritualistic process when entering the studio. I commence by thinking about what I am planning to create but then often a block comes over me and I have possibly over-thought the process. I then unconsciously seem to distract myself by cleaning, sweeping the floor, tidying and moving things around the studio. This ritual of distancing myself from the things that are blocking me creatively sometimes allows me to escape from myself into what I now consider to be an ‘Oceanic State’. Whilst in this state time becomes irrelevant, I am in the moment, with no consideration for anything outside of what I am doing, like an actor or a dancer fully present in the moment. I consider that I have made some of my best works whilst in this state of mind.
Thinking about the vulnerability I experience within my life and work I have become aware that this period I spend in the Oceanic State is a time I consider to be most at one with myself. During these moments, I become temporarily unaware of the troubles that life presents and the vulnerabilities that I often experience in my working process. This leaves me to consider whether it is this experience that drives me and other artists to do the thing we do, create.
Watching a film of Tracey Emin working on a painting and listening to her grunting like a tennis player and appearing totally absorbed in the aggressive attack on her canvas, or hearing about how Yayoi Kusama crosses the road from the mental institute she resides in and heads to her studio for the day where she sits and also appears lost from the world in her process, leaves me wondering whether they too are lost in that moment, that ‘Oceanic State’.
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Bethlem Museum of the Mind (2021) Available at: https://museumofthemind.org.uk/blog/yayoi-kusama-outsider-artist-3 (Accessed: 10 March 2021).
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Elephant Art (2020) Available at: https://elephant.art/tracey-emin-on-looking-inwards-24112020/ (Accessed: 25 March 2021).
Inside the exhibition: ‘Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul’ (2021) Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDWjhrrscfo (Accessed: 23 March 2021).
Royal Academy (2021) Available at: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/tracey-emin-edvard-munch (Accessed: 23 March 2021).
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Tess in the City (2020) Available at: https://tesscongo.medium.com/transforming-trauma-a-day-in-the-life-of-yayoi-kusama-22d88c85831e (Accessed: 25 February 2021).
The challenge of the oceanic feeling: Romain Rolland’s mystical critique of psychoanalysis and his call for a ‘new science of the mind’ (2017) Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01916599.2017.1356741 (Accessed: 2 February 2021).
Turning The Art World Inside Out - Alan Yentob. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98RUUhVgLR0 (Accessed: 12 February 2021).
Royal Academy (2021) Available at: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/tracey-emin-edvard-munch (Accessed: 23 March 2021).
White Cube (2019) Available at: https://whitecube.com/exhibitions/exhibition/tracey_emin_bermondsey_2019 (Accessed: 19 March 2021).
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MA CAP 708 Writing Assignment.
Student: Derek Dickinson
Tutor Feedback: Mark Leahy, Anya Lewin
The un-sleep images of Emin’s relate in an interesting way to her installation ’My Bed’ from much earlier in her career, and this to the twisted fabrics in your paintings / reliefs … where the absent figure or suggestion of a figure is there through visual and cultural association. The insomnia photographs of Emin are revealing and intimate in a different way from her bed, and allow the audience access to the private or safe space of the bed in another way. It might be interesting to follow up some of the connections to the bed as a space of retreat, of safety, of privacy – whether in narrative terms, or in art.
The classification of Outsider Art is also something you might want to explore further, partly out of interest in the qualities that draws you to works produced or categorised under this label, but also to consider how the category functions – who makes the decision to label the work, what are these artists working ‘outside’ of?
The concept of ‘oceanic feeling’ as suggested by Rolland, and discussed by Jackie Wang in the essay we looked at in the seminars, and also connected to Marian Milner’s writing is an interesting topic also – relating as it does to your studio practice, to how you go about making and working, but also how it may connect to other discussion around mental states or psychological understanding of creative activity. This could be taken further in the next piece of writing.
This feels like an important piece of writing for you Derek as it opens out possibilities for further exploration and investigation around your practice, potentially offering ways to sustain your work, and resources to draw on within the studio.