Art of Psychiatry Society

Interview with Aidan Moesby
April 26, 2011, 7:19 pm
Filed under: Exhibitions, Interviews

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.

Aidan’s blogs

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[…] I have just finished an interview with Stephen Ginn of @psychiatrist on Twitter. Stephen runs the  Art of Psychiatry site which I stumbled upon and then wrote to publicisng my exhibition at the Centre For Life, Newcastle. The interview can be found at […]

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