I viewed Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illiness by Michael Nye, at the Wittliff Collections, Texas State University, in early March. The exhibition had 55 black and white portraits, which were warm toned silver prints mounted on 24" x 30" archival board, each made with an 8 x 10 view camera. There were separate audio stories (earphones were provided) for each person.
Michael Nye begins his statement with two sentences: "1. Mental illness is not caused by weakness of character. 2. Mental illness is treatable." He asks each person coming into the gallery to discard stereotypes and to listen to the stories of each of these people. Diagnosis are listed at the beginning of the exhibit, but not tied to specific people, so that we are not thinking about arbitrary labels before deciding to listen to each person. The size of the portraits along with the audio allows you to feel as if these people are sharing their life with you.
The last print shows a jury, with the audio playing a woman laughing hysterically at what I interpreted as inappropriate and absurd contact with the criminal justice system. The courts seem to be the last resort for many with mental illnesses. One realizes after listening to the audio stories that these people do not belong in jail; they seem like people we know. If they end up in jail, perhaps it is because they do not have the right health insurance (some kicks in only in emergency situations), cannot find the right hospital for treatment, have no access to medications, no effective supervision, or are homeless.
I thought the exhibit was very effective at helping to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness. It got the point across that we would be better off trying to proactively provide access to care for these people who are so much like us, instead of waiting until it is too late, disaster has struck, and the only thing that can be done is to involve the police and courts.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Monday, March 17, 2014
Francis Alys (b. 1959) is a Belgian artist who lives and works in Mexico City. I viewed a video titled When Faith Moves Mountains, which documents 500 volunteer Peruvian students equipped with shovels moving a sand dune in Lima Peru in 2002, 10 centimeters from its original position. Alys worked in collaboration with Cuauhtemoc Medina and Rafail Ortega. The view from the helicopter showed that the volunteers had formed a single line to move the sand dune; several video cameras, from different viewpoints, were used.
The following link is to an online video of the performance:
This performance had political meaning because it used allegory to question the effectiveness of bestowing democracy on a country. According to Tyler Green who writes the blog, BLOUIN ARTINFO, Modern Art Notes (June 28, 2011), "Because the action was created for the 2002 Lima Biennial, it is viewed as commentary on Peru's transition from Alberto Fujimori's dictatorship to a poverty-addled democracy, a way of asking the question: Does a nation's mass movement thwart something typically considered progress --- access to the ballot box --- matter if it does not improve the lot of the country's people? (curator Russell Ferguson, 2007, Hammer Museum Alys survey, Politics of Rehearsal and curator Klaus Biesenbach, 2011, A story of Deception, 2011)". Does faith in democracy solve problems? Will the small actions of many believers working together overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles?
In spite of the cynicism shown by some, the Peruvian student volunteers said that they felt good about the project, that they felt very involved, and that a memory of the event had been built that would live on.
Saturday, March 15, 2014
On March 12, I visited The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University to view "Man and Beast: Photographs from India and Mexico" by Mary Ellen Mark, organized by the director of the Wittliff Collections, David Coleman. There is a new hardcover book by the same name, published by The University of Texas Press, that is for the Wittliff Collections' Southwestern and Mexican Photography book series. Many of the people in the exhibition were circus performers and trainers in Mexico and India whom Mark spent years with.
In the Wittliff Collections brochure:
Mark describes the circus as "a universal form of theatre". "It incorporates," she writes, "so many things---beauty, irony, poetry, tragedy." The circus also provides a launching point to explore other themes that pervade Mark's work and are particularly prevalent in "Man and Beast": the mutability of identity through costume and performance; hope, humor, and faith in difficult circumstances; and the innate human (and animal) need for contact and community---in the fullest range of its meaning.
More than 90 of Mark's photographs are in the "Man and Beast" exhibition. All were made with fine-grain black and white film, impeccably printed. One room held a number of prints that were identified as performance art. Two of the prints particularly held my attention. One, titled "An Elephant Picks Up His Trainer, Rajkamal Circus", Upleta, India 1989, showed an act where the elephant had its trunk around the trainer, had picked him up, and then placed him on its back. The man's feet were neatly together and it was apparent that it was a cooperative effort.
Another photograph, titled "Pinky Practicing, Great Royal Circus", Cochin, India 1992, showed a ten-year-old child acrobat and contortionist named Pinky. Pinky's story regarding how she came to be in the circus described the alternative as being a life of poverty and abuse. Her mother stated that Pinky was beaten by she and her husband because Pinky claimed to be God. After the father died, the mother could not make ends meet and gave Pinky to the circus; the circus took care of Pinky and sent the mother money each month. The mother did not understand that she was signing a fifteen year contract because she does not read or write. Pinky described a time when she visited her mother and was asked to perform in front of the cinema hall, and people threw money on her. After this, she decided that she would not go with her mother if she came to take her.
This is a link to my favorite image of Pinky, from Photos on Mary Ellen Mark's Facebook page:
Pinky at The Great Royal Circus, Junagadh, India, 1992
Pinky at The Great Royal Circus, Junagadh, India, 1992
This is the link to Mary Ellen Mark's website: Mary Ellen Mark. The scope and quality of her documentary work over the last fifty years is extraordinary. She will be speaking specifically about her work featured in News -- Mary Ellen Mark: Man and Beast, at Texas State University, on April 27, 2014, at 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
On March 11, 2014, I visited the McNay to view the Diffuse (2008) and Conquer (2013) video exhibits, by Stephanie Patton (b. 1969). This exhibit is an example of performance and installation art, using photography, sculpture, and video.
In Diffuse, she is literally "walking on eggshells" in a pair of white pumps. One can hear the deafening crunching as she steps through a room. According to the plaque describing the exhibit, "This video reflects the anxiety that accompanies the desire not to upset or provoke unwanted behavior in another individual". She created a stage for making the video by preparing the blown-out eggs (nothing messy was visible) and leaving the shell intact. After preparing the stage for months, she documented the action in only one, continuous recording.
In Conquer, she has completely covered her face, ears, and neck with bandaids. She based this work on the metaphor to "rip off the bandaid", and removes the bandaids in the video, one by one, leaving visible red marks on her skin. She is very methodical in doing so, and the process is not pleasant to watch, even though she is completely silent. Perhaps this uncomfortable state is deliberate, as it is in real life. The plaque states, "In the pursuit of grasping and overcoming painful emotional and physical experiences, this action encompasses the act of dealing with the short-term pain involved, but then moves to a place of relief, healing, and ultimate growth". I found myself hoping for a big smile when she was done, but instead she had a pleasant, neutral expression, reflecting the reality that things may or may not move to a place of relief, healing, and ultimate growth.
Patton lives and works in Lafayette, Louisiana. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and a Master of Fine Arts in photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has also studied in other areas, such as vocal and comedic performance, and has exhibited her work nationally and internationally in solo and group exhibitions.