ON EDGE: Living in an Age of Anxiety
Gallery: Science Gallery, King’s College London
Reviewer: Jane Edwards
To arrive at the exhibition I need to navigate airless trains and dizzying crowds thronging through London Bridge station, scuttle guiltily past the hollow beseeching eyes of teenage rough sleepers, turn my gaze away from the glare of yet another luxury shopping arcade, and dodge the black cabs hailed by the gilt-liveried door men on the kerb of the luxury Shangri-La hotel, sitting beneath that looming Tower of Mammon, The Shard. And I think to myself, as I catch my breath and find my bearings, we most certainly are living in the age of anxiety.
Extinction Rebellion have momentarily managed to knock the Brexit shambles off the front page, austerity and the Neo-Liberal experiment have failed all but those who were on top anyway, climate change deniers are hopefully retreating into their dark corners as fast as the temperature records break. Perhaps the only thing we can reach agreement on right now is yes, we do all feel anxious living in such unstable and uncertain times. Arguably we are living through nothing less than the disintegration of the old world order; from party politics and the patriarchy, to binary sexuality and gender identity, the tectonic plates of what until very recently we considered ‘normal’ are shifting as fast as the climate is changing. In the field of mental health this paradigm shift is long overdue. The old order, enshrined in that delightfully reassuring, elevated and other-ing tome, the DSM IV, is giving way to the challenging but vital idea that mental health and illness is not binary and boxable.
I’m here with a friend who works as a Speech and Language Therapist. Until recently her students would need a label to be ‘understood’ – autism/ADHD/dyslexia – but her field is increasingly resisting the desire to diagnose, preferring the framework of neurodiversity instead. Doing away with diagnosis allows the focus to shift from object to subject and enquire, ‘how does this child react to uncertainty, what triggers can we identify and how can we help support them in feeling more certain, more contained and less anxious in their world?’ By placing the capacity to cope with uncertainty at the centre of their therapeutic thinking, a more nuanced picture of the individual and how to support them emerges.
So, while all of this change is clearly a darn good thing, it is also hugely destabilising. In these uncertain times, anxiety and depression seem to me to be a rational and sane response. Indeed, to judge oneself as happy, calm, secure, content and optimistic right now might arguably be diagnosable as a delusional defence! It’s become a well worn trope to declare that modern life assaults our senses in a rollercoaster of emotional and information overload, resulting in feelings of numbness, shakiness or both. This timely exhibition, a collaboration between artists and scientists (another wonderful example of the binary old-world order breakdown), explores anxiety subjectively and collectively, and goes on to ask, what can we do about it?
This is only the second exhibition at this slick new gallery, replete with prerequisite shop selling a small selection of stylish trinkets and a minimalist café serving excellent modern, good value nosh (highly recommended, by the way). I do confess I find modern art hard to connect with, and this destabilisation and alienation makes me feel anxious. I guess I prefer my art reassuringly familiar, you know: paintings, sculpture, and the like. So like a reactionary old fart I find myself recalling my own early 80s art school days with rose-tinted nostalgia. What we think of as art now has exploded into all conceivable dimensions.
Here, then, is art that requires the viewer to take their time and work hard intellectually. I confess that without the extensive accompanying written information I would have been left nonplussed by some of the work. However, when I get past my initial resistance, much of what I see is rewarding, and leaves me thinking about the inherent parallels with the therapeutic encounter. Don’t we also invite our clients to put aside preconceptions, to challenge defences, to turn off phones and be present, with only us as their witness to the unfamiliar and disquieting experience of sitting with the discomfort of not knowing?
Exploring the experience of anxiety from an individual perspective, Benedict Drew uses ‘the language of noise – feedback, rhythm and repetition – to invoke the feeling of anxiety, and invites the viewer to stay with the difficult feeling until it becomes an almost ecstatic experience’. ‘The Bad Feel Loops’ asks if it’s possible to embrace the experience of anxiety within the context of constant information overload in everyday life, trying to see ‘the potential value of staying with the experience of chaos or crisis, rather than trying to silence it’. In other words, I guess, run with it, don’t run away.
Sarah Howe’s installation ‘Consider Falling’ is a series of film ‘gifs’ of isolated body-parts and taped transcripts, focusing in on the specific experiences of derealisation (the condition of feeling that reality is unreal) and depersonalisation (a feeling of detachment from oneself, or that oneself is unreal) collectively referred to as Dissociative Personality Disorder (DPD). The artist draws on interviews with service users at King’s College London’s DPD Research Unit based at The Maudsley Hospital.
Meanwhile, Leah Clements asks ‘how can we navigate anxiety alone?’ One image in particular, a woman standing on a bed with eyes closed, wobbly and unstable, was a very affecting depiction of the isolation of anxiety. Her film draws parallels between sleep therapy, deep sea rescue diving and psychotherapy. She says, ‘there is always a cut-off point at which the carer cannot continue to follow the person that they are helping.’
Of all the artists, Alice May Williams’s work, ‘With you, If You Need,’ is the most traditionally executed: brightly coloured canvasses depicting motivational words on a backdrop of patterns inspired by sports logos. Sport is really not my bag, and initially I didn’t feel drawn to the work, but reading about Williams’ experience of finding connection in a women’s football team as a way to combat anxiety made me connect more to her paintings, and I felt touched by her desire to communicate the positive impact of sport on mental wellbeing. It was a reminder that as individuals we somehow muddle through, to find ways to communicate across difference.
In the section on collective experiences of anxiety Harold Offeh’s work, ‘Mindfully Dizzy’, focuses on how our environment affects mental health. Working with Patients from the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital and riffing on the word ‘dizzy’ to a backdrop of Dizzy Gillespie, he references a quote by philosopher Søren Kierkegaard – “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”, ‘proposing that anxiety could be attributed to the dizzy feeling one might get when they are about to step into the unknown; a feeling of uncertainty, but opportunity.’
This work leaves me pondering the irony of employers who offer courses in mindfulness to counter work-induced stress, the onus being placed on the individual to find the time to care for themselves. In so doing any questioning of the unhealthy organisational structure can be sidestepped.
In his interactive research project Kris De Meyer, from the Department of Neuroimaging at King’s, explores whether anxiety about climate change fuels action or inaction. Despairingly, I have to agree with an article he references from Vice magazine, which says: “it’s super painful to be a human being right now at this point in history.”
Not wanting to end on a bum note, I leave you with the installation ‘Common Thread’, created by RESOLVE Collective and Science Gallery London Young Leaders, which invites us to ‘reflect, connect, and share’ through the communal activity of weaving.
Overall, there is something pleasingly meta about the idea that an exploration of anxiety through art is also anxiety provoking and alienating in itself. But pushing through my anxious resistance, I leave confirming my belief that to make sense of and alleviate this dreadful state of anxious uncertainty we must seek out connection.
Jane Edwards is an Integrative psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice based in North West London and teaches at The Minster Centre. To try and keep sane she walks dogs in woods, grows stuff and watches gripping drama on the telly.
Pearl, M. (2019). ‘Climate Despair’ Is Making People Give Up on Life. Vice US [online]. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/j5w374/climate-despair-is-making-people-give-up-on-life