Freud defined anxiety as a transformation of tension. Heidegger classified it as a fundamental mood. IMMA’s latest group exhibition A Vague Anxiety focuses on contemporary reasons for anxiety; the news, climate change, world leadership. The exhibition centres around emerging artists, and hopes to address some of the issues that affect Generation Y. Mental health is having its long overdue moment in the increasingly hot sun, and this exhibition wonders whether there is a collective aspect to the heightened anxiety of today’s society. I spoke with the exhibition’s curator, Seán Kissane, about effecting change and an impending sense of doom.
Plattenbau Studio — ‘Highrise’
“I’m trying to talk about anxiety as being human condition,” Seán explains. “This is very much a human exhibition, even though there are sculptures which look quite minimal, and other things are just architectural plans, so they are not portraits of people, but in this exhibition the human presence is always entirely present, and represented, or its implied.”
Giving a quick run through of the layout, Seán outlines the power of each room.
“There are six rooms, the first room’s theme is climate change, the next room is politics, hard borders, the rise of the right, the next room is ideas of shelter, refugees, migration, the homeless crisis here in Ireland, the next room is completely darkened, it’s what you do inside that shelter, it’s this idea of the digitisation of intimacy. Interpersonal relations are increasingly filtered through apps and dating apps, so we lose the sense of ourselves, we look for intimacy in the wrong places. Then the exhibition comes back on itself, it becomes universal again, a lot of these ideas have been tested before. Especially the political ones. There are two major installations by plattenbaustudio, a studio in Berlin, by artist Susanne Wawra, and those are observing what life was like in former East Germany. So again there is a sense of anxiety between person and state, that tries to force uniformity on society, to create a flat society. But people will always be individual, they will always burst through, [and put] their individual creativity in that space. Then the last room we come into is about childhood, and a loss of innocence, because increasingly it’s little children who are the people who are presenting with acute anxiety.”
Seán is fast-paced and clearly energised by the work. The exhibition is a series of rooms and with those rooms comes a myriad of emotions; most of them unsettling. The anxiety present in the backdrop of our daily existence seems like an objective happening that everyone has experienced in some way. The exhibition is explicit in dealing with current reasons for collective anxiety. It touches on a range of political and social issues, using symbolic materials.
“For example in the large scale architectural drawings by plattenbaustudio, on the surface it looks like a huge building in East Berlin, but when you get up close you realise that what they’re representing is that each dweller has personalised their individual apartments. Or in Marie Farrington’s sculptures, while again they look quite minimal, it’s these materials which speak about anxiety. The use of sea water represents the rising sea levels. Other materials include wax and pollen, which of course reference bees, and colony collapse disorder, and how our food chain could break down at any time. And then Marie has these little black pools filled with either Indian ink or used engine oil. These represent the petro-chemical industry, and the way in which we are releasing vast amounts of carbon into the air, and causing this destruction. The human is either present or implied.”
The list of potential impending disasters goes on, leaving the viewer feeling somewhat powerless. The group nature of the project better captures the collective moment that anxiety is having currently; bringing a variety of personal expression to the exhibition. This personal aspect revives the power of the viewer as each artist lays claim to their own brand of coping. It presents a diverse experience with traditional painting, sculpture and photography, installation, social media, workshops, dance, performance and club culture. The pieces were produced by a group, curated by Seán, of emerging Irish and International artists: Cristina Bunello, Marie Farrington, Saidhbhín Gibson, Helio León, plattenbaustudio, Brian Teeling and Susanne Wawra, with performance pieces by Alexis Blake and Stasis. He tells me more about how the group dynamic of the exhibition allows for the use of varied mediums, which captures accurately the different forms anxiety can take in people’s daily conscious.
“There are seven artists and each of them does something really different and every practice looks very different, but at the same time they overlap and there are synergies in the practices which really suit each other and it is this shared experience of different types of anxiety. Every single practice is entirely different, but at the same time, similar.
“The artists are largely unrepresented by galleries, and have had little or no institutional support before, so the exhibition has hoped to give a platform to new voices who hopefully are relatively unknown to the audience, so the main thing is that I’d like to introduce these practices to the audience. Practices which I have followed for, in some cases, nearly 10 years. After that I hope they see a little snapshot of what’s happening. Many of them are based in Dublin, or in Ireland, or Irish artists who are abroad. So it is a little snapshot of contemporary practice as well.”
I wonder if the word anxiety is specific to the time we are living in. Has it always been around, but only now has found a voice? Is the current political and environmental disarray affecting the world’s collective well- being? Seán describes why anxiety isn’t just a 21st century feeling.
“It’s not new, the father of psychoanalysis is Freud, and anxiety and hysteria were two of his things that he described. He said anxiety is the feeling of impend- ing danger but the point being that it’s up to the psychoanalyst to decide whether it is objective or neurotic. I suppose what I am suggesting is that we are moving away from a point where anxiety is simply neurotic, to a point where anxiety is wholly objective. We have very real things that make us feel impending danger; climate, politics, shelter, digitisation of intimacy… I guess what I would say is different is the objectivity, it almost feels like we are living in a time of war.
“I’m not trying to describe the point of an anxiety attack, or someone with acute anxiety, I am trying to talk about this notion of chronic anxiety, this hum that we experience. You might be having a regular, good day, and you don’t even open the newsfeed on your phone but somehow it infects the way that you interact with the world because somehow it is going to hit you, so Trump is in North Korea, and Kim tests some atomic bombs; you know that on an individual level there is nothing you can do about this, it is one of those horrendous ‘wait and see’ moments. And then you wonder is there any plutonium in those bombs, or is it fake news? And so you question everything about this news. Even though you’re having a good day, you’re left feeling vaguely unsettled. It is just another little germ that goes into the back of your mind, and it festers, and that’s the vagueness. They’re huge events, and they’re so huge that there is nothing that you can do on an individual level. So what we can do is kind of process them in our own micro way, and almost, hope for the best.”
The future of anxiety is intrinsically linked to our social, and political futures, as well as the very existence of the human race. Seán thinks young people could hold the cure.
“We’re feeling the pressures of society increasingly, and children are the people who are going to carry all of these issues with them into the next 50 years, so we are really thinking about the children’s climate protest a few weeks ago, which I experienced in Cork. These young people going out onto the streets protesting was a really hopeful sign.
“I believed those kids. There were so many different messages on their placards which to me is a symptom of that creativity which
you have in youth; young people are always full of ideas, they are always so receptive to change. The other thing is that aren’t we supposed to think that technology is exponential in the way that it changes so that all you need is a small number of these young brains to find technological help as well. The person who discovered that blackhole yesterday is a graduate student in Harvard. These remarkable discoveries can be made by remarkable young people.”
Is a resolution in sight?
“The message that the artists are driving home, is that everything seems so huge, and these things feel like global issues with no obvious resolution, every artist in the exhibition identifies how the individual functions within these issues, and that it is not a collective responsibility, but it is an individual responsibility.”
There is always a worry that overemphasising the individual’s responsibility of the collective will let large corporations off the hook. For example in the case of single use plastics.
“You cannot have systems of oppression unless individual people collude, or are complicit within that system, all systems, whether liberal or oppressive, are driven by people, by democracies, by individuals. Society is seen as this big amorphous blob but it is a system which is composed of individuals who can make individual change.
“The whole point about it is that if the individual refuses to take the plastic from the supermarket, then the supermarket will. You know, the butterfly effect? That individual decision will influence companies to make products which are no longer individually packed. I suppose that notion that individual responses lead to collective affirmative action.”
Taking control of these actions can indeed help to reduce the anxiety of impending doom. Creating a dialogue about collective affirmative action is one of the most import- ant results of the work. The exhibition has a sense of urgency to it. The expression of the artists feels as if it needed to be expressed here and now.
“And that is the hopeful model I guess, and all you can do is try and participate at the level.”
Audiences attending this exhibition should hope to experience an emotional overload in the important sense. While the exhibition does not suggest it can answer these questions, experiencing other people’s expressions of anxiety has a strangely soothing effect. Seeing where it all fits together in society and understanding the ways in which it comes together to make the foundations of nations is reassuring. While big corporations need to be held accountable, each person and each mind has untold power to choose the behaviour that will make a positive difference in the world.
A Vague Anxiety is running at IMMA until August 18.