Aidan Moesby’s exhibition ‘Do you think we can talk about this?’ has recently opened in Newcastle’s Centre for Life. Aidan has kindly agreed to a text interview with the AoP blog, which is apt. See previous post for more details about the exhibition
What is a text based artist?
To my mind, in the most simplistic terms and almost self defining, a text based artist is one who concentrates on creating art using words rather than other traditional materials and methods. I use linguistic rather than visual imagery. It is very often conceptual in nature – with the inherent idea being paramount rather than its execution. Text based art became more prevalent in the 60’s since when it has become much more of a genre in itself.
In my practice however, I do not only use words. I use printing, installation, new and mixed media. At some stage other people are also often involved either directly or indirectly; for example if I am making work about a building I may collect people’s stories who visit or work/worked there. This impacts on my choice of materials and how I execute my work. Some of my text pieces do not contain text as such and are merely allusions or metaphor.
What drew you to concentrate on this avenue of artistic expression?
I had been working therapeutically with severely traumatised adolescents and young children. The importance of the word – how everyone has their own individualised or personalised language, imagery, metaphor – was obvious and powerful, and this extends beyond the white room or ‘walled garden’ or wherever the intervention occurred. I am passionate about ‘the word’, language and communication. I had become more interested in art than therapy having completed an MA in Art and Psychotherapy. It seemed a natural transition to use text in my art – particularly as I have no ‘traditional’ art skills and have not been to Art School.
Ten years ago I was living in Bristol and regularly taking part in poetry slams. This lead on to a residency as a poet in a school – something I had never done or even considered – but I really enjoyed it. This lead on to other writer-in-residence opportunities and that in turn lead onto becoming more ‘art’ focussed than writing. Sometimes I find writing too limiting, too precious.
What are your motifs? Do you often address themes of mental health?
My work has everything and nothing to do with mental health. What I tend to address is relationships, identity and memory. My work explores visual and linguistic imagery that we use to create and make sense of the worlds we create and inhabit. Firstly there is the relationship to ourselves, others and the world around us. We need to understand our place in the world. Our relationships are often characterised by conflict – intra-psychic, intra and inter – personal etc. As we progress in life we carry with us our psychological heritage – our ‘baggage’. So I guess the motifs are those pertinent to the human condition. For example the piece ‘Unburnt Ashes’ – which shows a face and the words ‘I’m the ashes remembering what it was to be unburnt’ – this could equally apply to me trying to piece myself together after my diagnosis or equally to the aftermath of a failed relationship where I or ‘one’ is trying to remember how they were before entering into the relationship and being hurt or losing themselves. My work with mirrors is a definite nod to my therapeutic training although I no longer work as a therapist.
My disorder is a part of me as is my art and my need to create. I cannot turn my mental disorder off and on and therefore as I live in the world and respond to it then my work addresses mental health – in the generic and specific senses. However my work is not always issue lead but it does attempt to be emotionally engaging. I like to think that within some of the work there is humour.
Ultimately the work has a displacement, it acknowledges that we are in a state of constant flux and inhabit the often subtle, fragile and dynamic boundary between the conflicted continuum of ‘ease’ and ‘dis-ease’.
How do you hope that your work will get a conversation going about the stereotypical images of those with mental health difficulties?
Like I say, my work attempts to be emotionally engaging, It is not pretty, you wouldn’t choose it to match your curtains. However, nor can you see it and not somehow get an itch from it – not necessarily immediately, more one of those that creeps up on you and yet somehow you can’t quite reach it.
I hope that by being in the Centre for Life initially, a totally different audience will get to see it. The audience there is not an ‘art crowd’ or a ‘mental health crowd’, but the general public. I feel by bringing the mental health discussion in the open in a relatively subtle way, it becomes more accessible and normalises mental health issues – there’s the desert, there’s the genetics, there’s the planets, there’s mental health – because everyone has mental health – we’re all somewhere on the ‘good bad’ continuum. In the Centre for Life people are generally in an open inquisitive explorative frame of mind. Hopefully stumbling upon my exhibition will initiate a conversation in the same vein.
The work on show is not ‘in yer face’, some are quiet and contemplative and some are gently challenging. If people can see that they do have mental health and that mental health issues or difficulties can affect anyone then maybe that can engender a change, a reflection. The fact that the exhibition is public, not hidden and there on merit, not out of tokenism are all positive and challenging elements. It can be a struggle, it’s not all rock and roll but people with mental health difficulties can lead fulfilling rich and varied lives.
Mental health diagnoses are given to individuals, but your work references both the personal and the cultural. How do you view mental disorders?
I am interested in culture and I am interested in mental health. I think the cultural language around mental health is pejorative. It is the last bastion of the ‘open season’ given that, and thank goodness, the cultural landscape around racism, sexism, homophobia etc have been addressed somewhat. For a start people with mental health diagnosis tend to adopt them and take them on. Yes, there can be something comforting about a label but people don’t say ‘I am renal failure’, ‘I am heart disease’, in the same way people say ‘I am Bipolar’, ‘I am Psychotic’. Psychiatric diagnosis subsumes the individual, the personal identity gets lost. Also, a personal bug bear is ‘T4′ (weekend morning teen-aimed slot on Channel 4). T4 was also codename for ‘Tiergarten 4′ in Berlin which during the second world was an organisation created for the euthanizing of adults with mental health problems and physical disabilities. Can you think of any other cohort of people where missing such an obvious cultural reference would be tolerated? This can only be because mental health problems are so low on our agenda.
As I have said earlier we are at once fascinated by the kooky and weird and then vilify them just as easy when we tire of them. This is not a consistent message for society regarding mental health. And we need look no further than the sensational headlines in the red tops. We have double standards – How many people get drunk and are violent regularly on a weekend compared to those with diagnosed mental health issues? We have very few positive role models or representations in culture of people with mental health difficulties – be that books, movies, music or art.
What’s your view on the relationship between art and ‘madness’?
I know this is everyone’s pet subject but I just don’t subscribe to it. I am not denying certain links between madness and creativity but what about those who are ‘mad’ and NOT creative – doubly dammed? Is it just the case that we are creative in times of unrest, struggle, extremes – falling in and out of love –and uncreative when everything is just dandy? Is it more to do with us ‘feeling’ intensely alive and in the world and having something to say about it? Then there are those who are creative and relatively sane and rational – whoever they are!
Do you have a view on the effect that psychiatric medication has on creativity?
All I can comment here is my personal experience. When I first got diagnosed and began to be medicated I cannot say whether it was the medication or extreme trauma or unwellness that rendered me uncreative. However in the attempts to stabilise me and the upward curve of dosage I generally began to feel detached from the world. Eventually I stabilised and I was looking into the world through the thousand yard stare. I was awake but not experiencing the world in any meaningful manner. I said to my psychiatrist that in order to create I needed to feel and this would aid recovery – self esteem, engaging with the world etc. As the medication reduced I began to experience the world, engage with it and respond to it – I could feel and create. To me therefore there is a direct correlation between medication and creativity. What I cannot also comment on is would I have been more or less creative now – unmedicated – cycling through the very creative manias I experienced previously but not so able to manage the day to day.
You say in your statement that we all yearn for ‘quick fixes’ and have lost our sense of self and integrity. Can you unpack this a bit?
I am only at the beginning of a discourse on this. It centres around the digital and throwaway culture. The ‘now’ and the ‘me’ culture. We appear to be obsessed, not with having a skill or being good at something but with being famous. We desire fame as an entity in itself via a plethora of vacuous talent shows and people who want to be WAGs for what it brings, not for love of another. There are the cathartic 15 minutes of fame – I produced a piece ‘Have you been affected by this issue?’ for the 40th anniversary exhibition of the Disability Act (ODI-Parliament) – the morally redundant confessionals. We all want to be something or someone else.
Despite digital ‘connectedness’ I feel we have never been more disconnected. I go to the theatre and there are people on smart phones facebooking or tweeting – yet they are in a real world event with real people and real friends; people don’t seem to be able to dissociate from the screen. We conduct our relationships differently now, how we communicate mediates the meaning of what is ‘said’ – text, tweet, phone call, letter. People forget that putting things on the net is visible to others and not just their ‘friends’.
It seems we all want to be on easy street, why exercise when surgery will do it overnight? We want others to do it for us, we live vicariously through ‘Lifestyle’ magazines – self help is so last century. As far as mental health goes I think there is definitely a ‘it’s your problem not mine’ , ‘let’s not talk about it for fear I catch it’ or ‘I don’t/won’t acknowledge I have issues around mental health’. This reinforces stereotyping and stigma – but it’s everyone’s issue. Overall I think we haven’t come to terms with the advances in technology, the changing roles for people, the changes in communication. We have lost the true sense of community and connectedness and have not truly adapted to post-Thatcher society.
Which other artists would you recommend to readers of this blog?
Fiona Banner was an early influence on my work. Felix Gonzales Torres, Susan Hiller, Jaume Plensa, Roni Horn, Claire Fontaine, Bruce Nauman, Sophie Calle, Jenny Holzer, Barbera Kruger. So many, though I tend not to go for one artist – I like individual pieces for example Hayley Newmans’ Kuss Prufung (Kiss Exam) 1999 and I prefer work which isn’t just projection or polemic because that smacks of ‘quick fix’ and I prefer more depth and substance. However, everything has its time and place.
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“Flight Fantastic” by Lorraine Nicholson
Emerging from the darkenened caverns of the mind
To embrace a light so directional and bright.
A chrysalis once, a butterfly now,
Wings unfolded, taking flight.
A flight not of escape but of liberation.
Brave New World.
What a day, what a night, what a life!
Experiencing a spiritual rebirth,
Breathing a passionate air into my lungs once again,
Like a stiff, bracing breeze energizing the soul.
Life is in my eyes once again.
The window on the soul expresses the happiness within.
A childish enthusiasm fills all my days now.
Reawakened, impassioned and wide-eyed as I go out into the world once more.
The freedom of flight is mine now
To land at will wherever fancy takes me
To touch the lives of fellow creative souls
And deliver the message of beauty
In this oft dark world in which we live.
The flight of the butterfly is one to relish.
Spread your gossamer wings and fly….
Lorraine Nicholson is the author of “The Journey Home” a collection of poetry, artwork & photography which tackles the theme of recovery from severe depression. Lorraine has kindly agreed to be interviewed by AoP blog. Her website is http://www.hope4recovery.co.uk
Can you tell us how you came to produce this book?
Like recovery it has evolved and taken shape over a period of 5 years. Back in 2006 the seed of the idea of publishing was sown during a 6 week solo exhibition I was offered showing my photography and emerging poetry which I called “A Carnival of Colour”. I used the opportunity to challenge the stigma which surrounds mental illness by going to the local press and having information up about the background to the exhibition being the visual expression of recovery from severe depression. It opened floodgates for people with similar experiences to open up to me in the gallery which was an eye-opener for me as I realised how common it is.
Subsequently in early 2007 I sent my work to several publishing houses without success. Ironically it was through a 2 month relapse in hospital in 2008 that I began to read recovery poems to fellow patients by way of peer support. One of the patients was somebody whose father was in the printing trade and on discharge we met up and he offered to put the money up to have it printed and published. It was a dream come true to share in order to help others.
How does this book fit into your story?
The first two years of my illness 2002-4 when I was in denial and giving services the runaround I got to the stage that all I did was walk long distances and then when my weight dropped to 5 stones and I was in bed all the time the last thing on my mind was creative expression. There was emptiness, desolation within and numbness, no feelings, no response to anything around me be it music, art, people. All I craved in illness was isolation and darkness.
On discharge from hospital the second time in 2005 words started coming to me thick and fast, expressing strong emotions firstly of regaining my joy in seeing colour, experiencing light and feeling alive within. My first poem had the title “Flight Fantastic” and takes the metaphor of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon and taking flight. My prolific writings helped me to make sense out of the trauma and allowed me to reframe experiences. Over the course of 3 years I was slowly able to return to the extreme pain and vulnerability and express illness in a powerful way which often shocked me to the core.
In short this book is my story.
You talk of your depressive illness giving you a second chance – can you tell us more about this?
Depressive illness as a second chance.
Severe depression for me represented something majorly wrong with and in my life which needed addressing and changing.
It was a time to ask myself the big questions in life around who am I and why am I here? Depression was the stop sign that forced me to search for and discover these answers for myself so I could move on and stay well. I realised over the course of time that I had up to that point been living life for everyone else but me.
I see, in retrospect, that illness such as this was, for me personally, an opportunity to reassess and find balance and fulfilment, so that what initially felt like a curse, being in prison for a crime I did not commit, became, in the fullness of time, the greatest blessing of my life.
There are many references to the theme of rebirth in my book. One poem, in fact, is called RENAISSANCE woman. The identity I had suppressed for years yearning to be an artist, was surfacing in a very emotive way. It could no longer be kept underground. It was gasping for air and a chance to flourish.
Now that my needs are being addressed by going to art school as a mature student, I am managing to stay well.
You’re now at art school. Where you an artist before your depression?
Since the age I could hold a pencil and before I was always keen to express things visually, having a strong visual response to the world around me.
It was something within me right from birth. Pre school age I would sit and draw everything in the room on the back of a napkin at a coffee morning with my mother. It was my main source of fulfilment and it continued right through to my teens with painting, drawing, making things out of wood/metal and then at 15 I was handed my Dad’s old analogue camera and began to photograph the world around me.
Then the academic world got in the way and art was regarded as a “nice hobby” but ” get a proper job” by the school. I had the academic ability to go to university and there studied modern languages but still took History of Fine Art as an outside subject.However, the writing was on the wall and after 3 years of success academically I failed to get my Honours degree in my final year dropping out at Christmas two consecutive years with stress and depression.
Yes I was very much the essential artist before suffering major depression at 40.
You said that you would never have thought of writing poetry before your depression – why do you think that you were inspired towards poetry as part of your recovery?
I didn’t feel as much inspired to write poetry, which, incidentally I never felt drawn to before I became ill, rather compelled to write poetry. It was a need not a choice and proved very cathartic . I didn’t choose it. It chose me and I have heard poetry described as the language of suffering. Words bagan to surface after the catatonic state of severe depression, like lava from a dormant volcano.
After long periods of non-communication and self isolation words put me in touch with the sense of self that had been absent for years. I began to feel emotion again after the numbness of depression.Floodgates opened and I could express and attempt to make sense of the trauma I had been through. It was a huge release.
Do you still write?
I no longer write poetry which, to me, demonstrates its need at that time in my life which is no longer a need. My main channel now is art and photography.
Which artists/poets do you find inspirational?
Of course there are many artists and poets who have suffered depression in their lives or major adversity like Van Gogh, Munch and Frida Kahlo. For colour alone Matisse is my favourite and in 2009 I was in the tiny chapel at Vence he designed the interior of. The vibrant colours of blue and yellow streaming through the stained glass windows onto the marble altar suddenly had me in floods of tears but of joy not anguish as I was unable in the depths of depression to feel colour or have any emotional response to what i take pleasure in normally.
As far as poetry goes I love the work of Robert Frost.What he writes speaks to me. As far as contemporary poets go, Kenneth Steven’s work evokes a visceral response in me.
You identify depression as being connected to identity loss – can you explain? Do you see this book as part of regaining that identity?
Many of my poems are related to this theme. “Labelled Lost and Found” being one of them. As much as a loss of identity in more focused terms it is related to a loss of soul for me.
I have emerged with far greater self awareness than ever before.
I now know who I am and what I am here to do.
For all my adult life I had suppressed my truth, my authenticity to “get the proper job” and to please others all at the expense of my soul’s truth. The art was an aside, an evening class here and there, a hobby, no more. I was bored, empty, hugely unfulfilled. Life was an existence.
Recovery for me has been a search, a seeking out of truths, a going deeper to explore, a PHD in self-awareness. A clarity is there which was a haze before.
My Book “The Journey Home” is an affirmation of my artistic identity. It is my unique signature on the world’s surface.
At the back of your book you thank the professionals who helped you recover – what did you find the most helpful?
The therapeutic relationship has been of huge significance to me wherein an approach is taken which is totally driven by the belief that recovery is possible.
Asking me to take the lead once I have been deemed ready to has been the very root. They have handed me back the responsibility for the future direction of my own life and invested in the development of my strengths, empowering me to be all I can be through active listening to my needs and goals.
They have allowed me to take positive risks which is the very kernel of personal growth and self-determination.
They have shown complete faith in my abilities.
Such consistency of support and encouragement to move forward in my life and go beyond the person I was before, has had an enormous impact on my self belief. The foundation of their approach is humanitarian-driven and stems from a genuine desire to care holistically and promote self determination, ultimately aiming to make themselves redundant in my care.
The recovery approach for me consists of a “way of being” with people at every stage from crisis through every ongoing step. It is an intuitive “felt” response to the way you are feeling at any given time. “Tuning in” to the person’s wavelength shows wisdom based on understanding what is needed at the time. The tone of voice, body language, choice of words, hopeful attitude makes all the difference to our outlook. Being surrounded by people who feel positive about you and believe in you undoubtedly boosts confidence but there is a right time for every word and gesture. Knowing when to step in and prevent and when to stand back and allow are crucial skills which will impact on people’s chances of recovery.
Recovery is not a buzz word. It is an ethos, a philosophy, an approach to life and caring.