ART News

MENTAL HEALTH AND ART PRODUCTION

IN THE TIMES OF THE PANDEMIC

04th May 2022 | Guest Writer: Marianna Capelli
For this year's Mental Health Awareness Month, guest writer Marianna Capelli explores the themes of mental health in art-making during the Covid-19 outbreak.
It has become apparent that Covid-19 is one of the greatest menaces to our collective mental health. This new reality forced itself into our daily lives, making it impossible to ignore our already frail mental state. We all went through the same life-altering event, quite literally, a collective trauma; or what curators Stephanie Berlangieri and Lucy Latella have defined as temporal sameness.[1] The human experience can be universal to a certain extent: we all have agency, have desires, emotions and, in most cases, a conscience. But when it comes to our personal histories, we make choices that alter our personal timelines. The pandemic amplified the impact of pre-existing social issues, raising awareness of the growing social gap, i.e. accessibility to medical care, housing, food, and access to a regular income. This has worsened the state of general mental health. For example, people who did not suffer from chronic anxiety dealt with a constant state of doubt and hyper-vigilance.

Untitled (Today is hard), 2020, Paola Paredes. Courtesy of the artist.

Creativity is a precious tool in moments of mental distress. Making art can help us make sense of things we do not (and cannot) understand just yet. It is often encouraged among non-professional artists as a therapeutic aid or induced introspection. The case can vary for professional artists. While some understandably distanced themselves from such monothematic production, preferring escapism, others concentrated their entire work on the initial Covid-19 outbreak. The latter translated this into the documentation of a point in time, emotional outlets, or reflections on their lives and mental health.

Artist Paola Paredes's initial reaction was to document everything. Paredes (b. 1986) is an Ecuadorian photographer and self-proclaimed visual storyteller whose body of work concentrates on the LGBTQIA+ community, especially the issues faced in her home country. Her photography combines the styles of traditional documentary and staged imagery and produces intimate portrayals of people or the artist herself. The 2020 series Today is hard chronicles the artist's self-isolation during lockdown and after resulting positive to Covid-19.

Untitled (Today is hard), n. 04, 2020, Paola Paredes. Courtesy of the artist.

When she contracted the virus, she had just come out of the hospital after a cruelly-timed mental breakdown (due to pre-existing and pre-diagnosed mental issues). Paredes draws interesting parallels between her anxiety and Covid symptoms. “It was only a matter of time before my anxiety began to re-emerge. I began to experience its familiar symptoms of pressure and pain in my chest, shortness of breath, headaches, trembling, and my airways restricting regular breathing. […] and the thoughts that started racing through my head only compounded my isolated confusion.”[2]
This condition of raised restlessness made her spiral even more.

Untitled (Today is hard), n. 10, 2020, Paola Paredes. Courtesy of the artist.

In this context, Paredes forced herself to take pictures and document her isolation, creating a visual journal of images of domesticity, not idyllic in any way. They feel claustrophobic, panicked, and overwhelmed by the uncertainty we all felt in 2020. Through pictures of herself, objects of common use, medicines and her quarantine space, she describes the fear of the initial outbreak, particularly enquiring about the state of people with prior mental health conditions.
The pandemic also revealed the notion of labour in our society. We have internalised capitalistic values that led to toxic productivity. In other words, the idea of wasting time if you're not making the most out of every situation, even in a deadly pandemic. This completely ignores the mental health crisis and reinforces the idea of productivity over well-being.

Instead, the work of artist Hiromi Tango (b. 1976) encourages her viewers to step out of this mentality to the benefit of their own health. Tango is a Japanese-Australian multidisciplinary artist. Her artistic practices mainly concern sculpture, photography, installations (using threads, fibre, wire and lights), and performance. She is particularly active in experimental projects focused on mental health awareness and its betterment in connection to the natural world. In some cases, this happens through her artwork by provoking a reaction in the viewers. Other times, she employs interactive exhibitions and workshops which promote mindfulness through activities.

The Healing Garden - Yogyakarta, 2018. The Healing Gardens project, 2018-ongoing. Hiromi Tango. Courtesy of the artist.

TIn her ongoing project The Healing Garden, Tango encouraged people to build their own paper or textiles flowers and plants during a special workshop. Through their contribution to the installation, the artist shows the healing power of nature: participants slowed down and concentrated on small tasks and repetitive movements. This creates a meditative state, which allows them to ground themselves and connects them to the natural environment. In a recent declaration, Tango said: “Our connection to nature is very important [to] our wellbeing. Particularly during the stress and uncertainty of the last two years including [a] period of extended lockdown, I have drawn a lot of comfort from gardening. [that is] The act of nurturing something.”[3]

The artist and some participants in the workshop. The Healing Garden - Yogyakarta, 2018. The Healing Gardens project, 2018-ongoing. Hiromi Tango. Courtesy of the artist.

Her 2020 piece Rainbow Circles- Healing Circles, instead, addresses the healing power of community and the shared concern for the consequences of isolation. By creating this interactive outdoor installation, the artist wanted to bring people together to find new ways to interact with each other and their changing environment. The structure is composed of brightly coloured arches, which take inspiration from the natural phenomena of bio-fluorescence and bio-luminescence. During her research, Tango realised that such vibrant colours alter brain functions and perception: they create a sense of playfulness, a “collective dreaming moment”.[4]

Rainbow Circles, Healing Circles, 2020. Hiromi Tango. Photo by Joe Ruckli. Courtesy of the artist.

Art is a precious, precious thing. It resonated within people even through such unprecedented times. It helped (and helps) us cope with our mental health and find new ways of being human, by connecting and creating communities around shared experiences.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please find these useful contacts:

UK only:

  • National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK. Call on 08006895652 (24/7 every day) if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts.
  • Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). Call CALM on 0800585858 (5 pm-midnight every day)- or contact their webchat service if you don't feel like talking.
  • Papyrus HOPELINEUK. If you're under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings, or concerned about a young person who might be struggling, you can call 0800 068 4141 (weekdays 10 am-10 pm, weekends 2 pm-10 pm and bank holidays 2 pm–10 pm), email pat@papyrus-uk.org or text 07786 209 697.
  • Shout Crisis text line. Text SHOUT at 85258 to reach the Shout Crisis text line, or text YM if you are under the age of 19.
  • Samaritans. Call 116123 to talk to Samaritans or write to jo@samaritans.org (replies within 24 hours).
  • SANEline.If you are experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else, call SANEline on 03003047000 (4.30 pm-10-30 pm every day).

For other useful resources, click here.

Click here for international emergency contact numbers available in non-UK countries.
References:
[1] As formulated by curators Stephanie Berlangieri and Lucy Latella in their essay “Coronavision: re-engaging with social issues through contemporary art”, for the 2020 exhibition Anywhere but here, Museum of Contemporary Art of Australia, Sydney. Last checked, 25/04/2022.
[2] Extract from Paola Paredes’ Today is hard. Last checked, 26/04/2022.
[3] Extract from Hiromi Tango's artist statement and interview from 2021.
[4] Ibidem.

About the Writer
Marianna Capelli was born in the middle of nowhere, Northern Italy. She moved to London in 2015 to study Asian Art History and Mandarin Chinese at SOAS University of London and fell in love with the contemporary art world.

Temporarily back to the provincial life, she spends her days burying her nose in a book (or multiple books, mostly). The rest of the time, Marianna likes being opinionated about things and writing about art, culture and everything queer.

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