Art as therapy or a window into another’s nightmare?
Writer Vesna Maric reflects on “Who Are We?” programme at Tate Modern
‘We need to share a fear, or fears. But can I have a minute to think about it?’
‘Yes, of course. Let’s think for a minute.’
The Shed Your Fears installation, by the London-based artist Richard DeDomenici, is a straight-to-the-gut kind of piece, inviting you to open your heart to a stranger and receive their open heart in turn. I sit inside the wooden shed that is an imitation confession booth, Richard has brought me tea and a Jaffa Cake (this is offered to all, to help, I suppose, get more comfortable with sharing). ‘I’m hoping that fears will dissipate through sharing. So much of what’s going wrong in the world right now, from Brexit to Trump, is a product of fear-based thinking,’ says Richard, when I speak to him later.
I start. ‘I’m afraid of growing old without money,’ I say to the woman on the other side of the wooden barrier. ‘I’m afraid of growing old alone, and not being OK with being alone.’
It is a confessional booth, only we are equal, one confessing to the other.
She tells me she’s afraid of physical violence, that on her way home at night she is afraid of being assaulted.
I don’t think about physical violence often, but that night I have a nightmare that I am being chased down an alley and wake up in a sweat, heart racing, my fear of violence suddenly alive and rich in detail. Did I shed, in that shed, or did I catch her fear, it rising up in the dark of the night, starless, moonless? I wonder if she dreamt of poverty and arthritic joints and no money for medication.
So, art as therapy or art as a window into another’s nightmare?
Behjat Omer Abdulla’s piece, From a Distance, reduced an elderly man to tears as he stood and observed the two large charcoal drawings of Behjat’s sleeping daughter. The story behind the work is too macabre to imagine possible, yet it is a true story of a mother’s loss of her twin infants – one through the unforgiving conditions of migrating across the sea and the other when the smugglers decided to throw the body of the dead infant overboard, and confused it with the sleeping child. Behjat used his daughter to represent the twin infants. I listen to Behjat tell me about his work, softly saying, ‘If I didn’t do this, I’d be on antidepressants. It’s too much to bear. Sometimes the stories are like a beehive, I can’t get out of them. So I draw.’
We talk about the sea, or water, and the way it’s simultaneously a thing of beauty and a grave, a symbol of mystery and the mind. Viewers are invited to write down answers on questions such as ‘If you were on this journey, what might you see around you?’ And I see young visitors playfully pick up the card with the story behind the work and freeze as they start to read. Imagine, it asks, imagine you were there. I am curious to see the answers, written on post-it-notes and stuck to a warm blanket hung on the wall, luminously aluminium, suggesting hypothermic bodies, the loss of heat and life, the world as a threatening environment.
Interaction and conversation, sharing and shedding, or receiving, both of the beauty and the horror of another’s life, another’s experience, is what art is for. Nothing separates us but our concepts of each other; use your imagination, think of yourself in another’s place.