43,252,003,274,489,856,000 Different Experiences

Chelsea Theilmann

 

My practice revolves around using my own experiences with mental illness through immersive installation, paintings and sculptures. Within the last few months my practice has evolved from simple, intimate portraits that weren’t translating what I intended, to artworks that encapsulate my personal experiences. My experiences with my illness is not like anyone else’s’; the person next to me could also be living with manic depression, anxiety and ADHD, but they are going to view the world and experience the symptoms completely different. No illness is exactly alike; no mind is the same.

 

“An illness, especially that associated with the mind is severely undermined and often misjudged. If nothing else, they can easily be pushed aside as to not having existed. However, they are inexcusably present and are being dealt with every day by a different person who perceives their mental illness in a different way. A mental illness is a Rubik’s cube because you are constantly trying to shift the tiles and find a correlation that fits in order to make sense of where you stand. The mind is far too complex to be undermined, especially since only 10% of it is being harnessed by us. That 10% needs a passageway that isn’t blocked by or re-routed by anxiety or pangs of depression (amongst various other forms of mental illnesses)” (Bhari, 2017).

 

There are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different possibilities to a Rubik’s Cube, 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different experiences with mental illness. My artwork is going to be my experiences, my perceptions, my jumbled and messy mind spat out and thrown in front of the viewer for them to see a glimpse into my world, yet have the opportunity to see deeper into theirs. It is not necessarily about the subject matter, but rather experiential artwork that reflects the jarring, beautiful chaos of the human mind.

In this paper, I am going to cover four artists that are quite diverse in practice but all have affected me emotionally and physically. Artists that use different mediums and techniques to create experiential, immersive artwork. Their work inspires, but also illuminates the possibility of creating atmospheres that can change you and your way of thinking. The work they produced has showed me I can create art that illustrates my own experiences and perceptions of the world around me, while simultaneously giving each viewer their own experience. In these chapters, I am exploring my practice through perception, light, space, color and material, while maintaining my true self within my work. Before doing so, I am going to cover the topic of Affect, further explaining the effect each artist I have researched has on the viewer.

 

Affect vs Emotion

 

Affect. The impact of bodily sensations or the change of mood or atmosphere can often be complicated to describe. However, Affect, can be a helpful term in these cases. Have you stood in front of something so grand, so magical, that it gives you goosebumps, or a tingle sensation throughout your body and perhaps makes you question everything you once believed in or thought you knew?

Affects are that which cause the bodily feelings induced by the encounter with an art object that births change - a ‘becoming’. These feelings belong to the body and are distinct from emotion. These feelings also belong to the object itself in an immanent sense. In the affect of art there is a coupling, joining, rhizomatic ‘becoming’ between the art-machine (object) and the subject-machine (viewer) (LeMahieu, 2015).
 

If asked to describe what you think of a chair or a phone, you might begin by explaining what it looks like, what it does, and if it has any special qualities. But one of the most important factors in determining how you feel will be your instinctive response when you encounter the object, an experience that is similar to what philosophers call an “affect” (Rawsthorn, 2012). When you think of that same phone do you get nervous jitters or butterflies in your stomach because you’re anticipating a call? Those feelings within you are described as affect, rather than an emotional surge.

 

“An obvious example is a typeface, like the one you are reading now. Simply by looking at the shapes of the letters you will know instinctively how its designer wanted you to interpret it. You don’t need to be a typographic historian to realize that the simplicity of a font with no decorative details, like Helvetica, used in the logos of American Airlines and American Apparel, is intended to evoke efficiency, speed and clarity. And you should be able to guess that the more elaborately shaped and ornately decorated the letters are, the likelier they will be to appear on the cover of a trashy novel or in the opening titles of a sappy movie. We know intuitively that, unlike ascetic Helvetica, a typeface with those affects is not intended to be taken entirely seriously” (Rawsthorn, 2012).

           

            Now that I have described affect and given examples, it will be more clear how these following artists have created work that provides the viewers with these experiences.

 

Color no es colorido

 

“It came back to me, I read it many years ago: ‘Color no es colorido,’ ‘color is not colored,’ a sentence attributed to Goya. Through the window I see olive trees I planted around the house. When I paint I sometimes use a pigment designated to olive green. It doesn’t match the color of the trees. The two dogs are lying on the floor and they also look outside. It seems they see the world in black and white. I wonder if it is the same world.”- Pedro Cabrita Reis (Stewart, 2013).
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Color Monster by Anna Llenas, published 2012

 

            You grow up learning colors and categorizing objects and feelings into each color group. A firetruck is red, a flamingo is pink, water is blue, so on. Learning colors as a kid means trading enchantment for knowledge and then eventually using that knowledge in deeper context. When you’re older and puberty hits, emotions run high, you begin to associate colors with even deeper feelings and thoughts.

 

Red means angry- when it doesn’t mean loving, courageous, vital or dead… what doesn’t the color red mean? Calm, chilly, boring, innocent only a few ideas spring to mind. If red could mean almost anything, does it simply mean nothing? (Stewart, 2013).

 

This is something I have been questioning and pondering over the last year while picking up different tubes of pigments. If painting with certain colors is intended to provoke subconscious emotions and thoughts, why isn’t the viewer feeling the same way as I was when I applied Primary Magenta? Because it’s not meant to be. For example, yellow in the western hemisphere is taught to be “happy” and “sunny”. I’m American, I grew up being taught to put a smiley face in a sun, but now at 26, I have opposite connotations with yellow. I have traumatic life events associated with yellow. And for that matter, is the Cadmium Yellow I am looking at the same Cadmium Yellow you see? How can we know for sure?

 

Color is like sex. Its mysterious. Its unknowable. It never looks the same twice. No two people see the same thing (Stewart, 2013).

 

So, there’s my point. Color not just cultural, its emotional, its psychological, its subjective. Color is fluid, and meaning is constantly changing from person to person. I could spend an entire paper on different artists and their use of color, but I’d rather talk about one particular artist and his use of color and affect.

Mark Rothko believed that a painting could become the equivalent of an individual, and could establish an intimate relationship with the viewer. Rothko believes a painting needs the company of a sensitive viewer in order to unfold and grow (Grässlin, 2007). I whole heartedly agree. Colors can be subjective to different cultures and facet of life; it can be said that they do have the ability tap into someone’s raw emotions to stir a primal reaction (like I previously went over). Forget everything you were taught in primary school. Blue doesn’t have to mean sad, but it means something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon 1-4, 1958-59, on display at Tate Modern

 

Mark Rothko used bright and contrasting color to express “basic human emotions- tragedy, ecstasy, doom” and chose these deeper, darker colors, such as reds and purples to depict his own struggle with mental illness (Holloway, 2014). These paintings also persuaded the viewer to also feel something deeper, to tap into their subconscious, a part of the brain that is otherwise muted. When I first moved to London I spent a lot of time at Tate Modern. I remember walking into the “Rothko Room” as I’ll put it. I was with my partner at the time and it put me in a depressing mood so I recommended us moving on, rather than sitting and basking in the “dried blood” that covered the walls. I went back last week alone. The “Rothko Room” is exactly how he intended them to be viewed. He didn’t want his paintings to be in some rich Four Seasons restaurant (as they were previously commissioned for), he wanted them in a compact room with dim lighting, demanding the viewer’s absorption. Yes, I still felt low being in there again, but why? Why was I feeling this way when I had just passed a bright and lovely Matisse in the other room? Why were these colors affecting me so dramatically?

 

Rothko reportedly commented that Michelangelo ‘achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after – he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall’ (Sainsbury, 2019).

           

I had this feeling of dread, of death, of uncertainty, of doom. I have to admit, I have been quite emotionally stable lately, so I was worried this room was literally going to change my mental wellbeing if I spent too long. However, I wanted the experience he has intended and so I stayed. The longer I spent, the more at peace I felt. It reminded me a lot of the experience you’re intended to have at Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, chaos turned to peace (described in a later chapter). Terrifying, exhilarating, overwhelming. Followed by silent peacefulness to allow you to be in your own thoughts. It almost felt like a therapy session. How did this experience happen?

 

Color psychology is based on the mental and emotional effects color has on people. The environment can influence your mental and physical state as well manipulate decisions and actions (Ciotti, 2014). This quiet place surrounded by dark, dreary colors provided an escape from the real world and opportunity to tap into my subconscious thoughts. There isn’t a subject matter to guide my thought process, just these deep colors surrounding me from every side, beginning to blend into the walls. Rothko created a sensory room as a therapeutic experience just by his use of colors, lighting and space. Like Turrell, Rothko capturing the viewers' imagination, creativity and self-reflection takes them on an emotional enlightenment by provoking honest, inner thoughts within the consciousness (Sutton, 2014, p. 46).

 

Perceptual Magic

 

Imagine a painting by Mark Rothko transformed into a movie. In a space behind a glass panel, fuzzy clouds of color slowly morph from one configuration to another. A golden patch may appear in a field of crimson and slowly expand like a rising sun, suffusing the whole zone. Then around the edges a filament of green appears, spreading almost imperceptibly. This in turn, shifts and modulates. And on and on. This is an example of the experience of looking at works by James Turrell (Gayford, 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

James Turrell, Stone Sky, 2005.

 

 

James Turrell, similarly to myself, uses his background in the social sciences within his work. While, I myself, use my background in cognitive neuroscience and personal experience, Turrell uses his background in perceptual psychology and his interest in light manipulation. Turrell’s work is not closely related to mental illness, however his use of lights and space is something I have been exploring within my work to illustrate my perception of reality, while maintaining an openness for the viewer to explore their own.

Turrell explores the relationship between perception and illusion by his use of light and space (Stiles, 2012). By using light at precise locations and illuminating space at different angles he can form illusions, shapes and contours that are not actually there, but the mind perceives it that way.   By only using light, walls and very few objects he removes all distractions, which leaves you with yourself and your perceptions of what is in front of you. His reasoning for using light as a medium is the revelation it brings to each individual viewer.

 

“It can burn us; we drink it as Vitamin D. It’s something we eat. Without exposure to light we get seasonal affective disorder” (Gayford, 2014).

 

Theses installations are a bit of perceptual magic, a slight of the artist’s hand, a sense of illusion. Yet all that artistic machinery in Turrell’s environments’ walls built, earth moved, perceptions warped- bring us closer to awareness of truths central to our experience: the reality is in constant collaboration with our perception; that vision can only be understood in time as well as space and light; that our understanding is not just a reading of the world but is actually shaped by our environment; and that this environment, the object of our perception, is shaped by our perceiving eyes (Govan, 2013).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

James Turrell, 'Bindu shards' Perceptual cell, 2010

 

Turrell has this power within his work that makes you stop and look, and look, and look. And question. And contemplate. And wonder. I have seen plenty of Turrell’s installations, but there is one series that I have been drawn to for years, “The Perceptual Cell”. These exhibitions are now closed, but while they were open they allowed one person at a time in a literal cell for anywhere between 12 minutes to 2 hours, while their eyes are forcibly opened due to the severity of the light and colors inside the cell. The experience includes saturated light that creates a kaleidoscope burst of light patterns that provokes your mind to race and cleanse itself. The experience is energizing yet relaxing, terrifying yet beautiful. Every viewer is going to have a completely different experience, yet all are witnessing the same artwork.

 

“All these spaces share the physical distinction of having thing-ness like sculpture or simple architecture… ‘Cell’ as in the single living cell refers to the singularity of experience, to enclosure as in the monk’s cell, and to the capturing or holding on an experience as in the prison cell; also to the conspiratorial nature of a secretly shared experience as in the terrorist or political cell” (Govan, 2013).

           

Turrell states that his work, "has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image, and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought. To make the quality and sensation of light itself something really quite tactile… yet it is physically felt, often people reach out to try to touch it" (Stiles, 2012).

That being said, instead of looking at a painting or sculpture, the light is transforming your thought process and provoking censored thoughts and feelings within your subconscious. His artwork removes you from reality and lets you dig deep into your mind and soul and instead of using your minds energy on reality and what is in front of you daily, you are seeking a deeper meaning of yourself.

 

“we live within this reality we create, and we're quite unaware of how we create the reality,” (Stiles, 2012).

 

Turrell's work is quite difficult to put into words because each viewer experiences something completely different and perceives it in their unique way. You are alone in an empty room or open area and the light transforms everything you thought you knew. There is a comfort in knowing what is real and where things are and Turrell strips that from you. Turrell’s motives for his work are different from mine, but the objective is all the same; to allow the viewer to each have their own experience through their surrounding environment.

 

Contained Chaos

 

 

 

 

 

Yayoi Kusama in the Orez Gallery in the Hague, Netherlands (1965)

 

“I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art. I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live” (Kusama, 2013).

 

Yayoi Kusama admitted herself to a mental hospital in 1975, where she still resides today. Her artwork is an expression of her life, particularly her mental illness. She uses her psychological complexes and fears as her subjects and openly speaks about her illness regularly.

 

“My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease” (Turner, 1999). 

 

It would be unfitting to call Kusama a mad, visionary artist nor to pathologize her achievement. Kusama’s work has certainly been shaped in part by her illness and her upbringing, but it doesn’t mirror others with similar diagnoses. Kusama challenges the stereotype of the crazy artist, a romanticized figure whose aesthetic contribution may be simultaneously elevated through immersion in the crucible of pain and denigrated through association with the art of children and other so called primitives (Kusama, 1998). The “insane” are generally assumed to create wholly instinctively, isolated from intellectual currents or calculations. Kusama, in contrast has always been a “conscious producer” who, like most artists, may use intuition as a tool but is also well aware of the intellectual relevance of what she does (Kusama, 1998).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013

 

I experienced Kusama’s Mirrored Infinity Room- The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away back in 2015 at the Broad when they first opened, and I have mixed feelings on my experience there.  The Mirrored Infinity Rooms, whether they are temporary or permanent installations, are “fully realized, discrete environments” and allow the viewer to become “part of the dramatic event”. (Kusama, 1998). But do they really allow the viewer to become part of that event that Kusama so dearly hoped to achieve? I do believe Kusama has achieved creating a space that throws your thoughts into chaos before putting them at peace, but on the other hand because of her status and the minimal time you’re allowed in the space, they have become nothing more than an instagramable opportunity. During her interview with the Broad, it was even brought forth that this room, as well as many of her others, are known for their “shareable” aesthetic.

 

The Broad: Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, has become one of Los Angeles’ most recognizable artworks since The Broad opened in 2015.  Visitors often share images of your Infinity Mirror Rooms on social media platforms, amplifying their enormous appreciation for your work through peer-to-peer networks. Do you see this image sharing as an extension of your intent with these works?

Yayoi Kusama: I integrate my philosophy about the eternity of inter-relationships into my artworks. You can share the information, but the experience is your own (2017).

 

It’s interesting and something to be mentioned that although her rooms are known for great photographs, she still intends them be a figment of her mind and an individual experience for each viewer. Like I mentioned earlier, I had mixed feelings about my own experience with the installation and I’ll explain why.

 

After spending 25 minutes in line and seeing a slight glimpse of light illuminating from the doorway, I was shoveled in with my friend and we had a mere 30 seconds to
“experience” this wall-less, hard-to-describe-by-design, room. Of course, I had a sense of wonder and confusion during that short amount of time, but looking back, I am quite disappointed in how the museum provides this experience. Kusama wants you to experience her fascination with infinity and repetition and the way these things can obliterate the ego (like being dwarfed by a sea of stars on a cloudless night)- but this is all lost when the time in the room is so rushed. You barely have enough time to register what is around you before the door is open, the daylight rushes and the noise from the crowed obliterates the serenity and beautiful chaos of her mind.  Kusama’s rooms are more than an Instagram opportunity, they’re the inside of a chaotic mind, they just need to be properly experienced (Kennicott, 2017).

 

Kusama has described “the limitlessness of her own body as it melds with her environment and, by extension, the desire to erase the self. The rooms play on these sensations, and in many of them, lights intensify the effect—whether they illuminate dozens of sculptural pumpkins from within or create a glittering universe of hundreds of multi-colored stars” (Lebowitz, 2017).

 

These spaces, similarly to Turrell are for perceiving, listening and feeling. While there is frustration in how the viewer can’t optimally experience her spaces, Kusama’s work has still showed me that I not only can create artwork from my personal experiences, but that I could allow each viewer to have their own experience.

 

Glitter: STD or Therapy? Both perhaps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is glitter and why are we so drawn to its shimmer?

 

Oxford English Dictionary explains glitter as “an intangible type of sparkly light”, “an expression of an emotion in a person’s eyes” and “an attractive and exciting but superficial quality.” In contrast, comedian, Demetri Martin coined glitter as the “herpes of the craft world” (2013) and artist, Christ Martin’s glittery paintings have been referred to as, “an assault on the eyes” (Sturgis, 2016). Sure, some may argue that glitter is not pleasant for everyone to look at, but little do they know, they are still inadvertently attracted to it.

 

“Humans, even humans who don’t like glitter, like glitter. We are drawn to shiny things in the same wild way our ancestors were overcome by a compulsion to forage for honey” (Weaver, 2018).

 

Fascinated by this claim, I looked more into it. One logical explanation is that shiny and sparkly objects are associated with luxury and wealth, however there is so much more to it. The first study I came across involved infants aged seven to 12 months old, and found that they put their mouths to glossy plates much more than to dull ones. Children had also been seen lapping shiny toys on the ground, the way an animal might drink from a puddle (Jaffe, 2014).

 

Another study included a group of scientists from Ghent University in Belgium that conducted a series of 6 experiments, some including blindfolding the subjects and having them rate either a glossy or matte piece of paper or having them visualize landscapes with either glossy or matte paper. Each experiment yielded the same response: the preference of glossy and the innate need for water. It all led back to the same conclusion:

 

that glitter is in fact a: manipulation of humans’ inherent desire for fresh water. An intangible light effect made physical. A way to make long winter nights slightly brighter. An object in which the inside of a potato chip bag meets the aurora borealis” (Weaver, 2018).

 

            Now, how does all that scientific research relate in terms as its use of a material in arts and crafts, or even contemporary art. Why am I, and others, using this kitschy, childish material that quite literally gets on everything and is found on your clothing years later?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Martin, Double Frog Afternoon, 2017

 

Artist, Chris Martin, is not a child using glitter in arts and crafts nor a millennial covering himself and attending a music festival. Rather, Martin is a 65-year-old established artist who uses glitter as a form of expression and his fascination in a deep-rooted history behind it. He discovered the material in the early 1990s while working as an art therapist for HIV-positive patients. His patients were so drawn to glitter, and the gold and silver paint. This is when Martin discovered the myriad joy of glitter- a material that enlivens many of his most recent paintings. He loves “everything that everybody likes about” glitter, especially that “it’s a great mess” (His studio is a beautiful, splintering color field of lost glitter shards- in the paintings, in the rugs on the floor, on every surface) (Wolkoff, 2019).

In addition to that pure happiness it brings to him, the material has a link to American syncretic culture that came from Africa, where reflections have to do with the possibility of communicating with the spirit world. Martin is quick to divulge his paintings’ wide array of references, from spiritual traditions to magic mushrooms to global art history (Vogel, 2018).

Martin brought that philosophy to bear when he worked as an art therapist, helping his HIV patients—and himself—cope with loss. He describes his art as:

 

“a way for me to survive my own life and to make sense of the world and emotions.” “The idea that art could have a healing function, first for the artist and then for the society—that’s something that I always understood” (Vogel, 2018).

 

Similarly, to colors, glitter is something that is usually associated with childhood and taught knowledge. That taught knowledge and enchantment never fades and it can be seen to have therapeutic effect on its users and viewers. It can be used to create an experience and thus allow the viewers to be able to dig deeper within themselves.

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            The topics and artists I covered may have been quite diverse and from the naked eye all appear completely unrelated, however my research and reviews of their works has allowed them to be interchangeable. Kusama, Turrell, Rothko and Martin may have used different mediums, came from different backgrounds and rose to fame during different time periods, but they all had one thing in common: they provided experiential art. They created atmospheres that charged you from within, created bodily sensations, wholly experiences. By creating artwork that not only indulges in their neuroses but also allows the viewer to provoke their subconscious feelings and thoughts, is something I am so completely drawn to accomplish. Kusama used artwork as an expression of her mental illness and hallucinations, while creating an individual experience for the viewer. Turrell creates spaces by using light as his medium, thus creating wordless thought and provoking the viewers censored feelings. Rothko used color as a form of personal expression to guide the viewer to be affected in their own way and thus tapping into their raw emotions. Martin used glitter as his medium to create a therapeutic experience, to learn more about yourself and the world around you, just like the rest.

 

These artists created sensory rooms that not only allow the viewer to go on a journey within themselves, but also provide a therapeutic experience for the neuro-diverse, like myself. That being said, these artists have proven that I can take my own experiences and thoughts with mental illness and life and create experiential artwork that no other individual will experience and feel the same. Through expression, medium, and space I can create chaotic yet therapeutic atmospheres and thus give each viewer their own individual experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Reference List:

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D'Souza, S. (2018). yayoi kusama's infinity rooms are more than instagram opportunities. [online] I-d. Available at: https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/zmd5n8/yayoi-kusamas-infinity-room-australia-instagram [Accessed 22 Jul. 2019].

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Kennicott, P. (2017). I went to Kusama and all I got was this lousy selfie. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/i-went-to-kusama-and-all-i-got-was-this-lousy-selfie/2017/04/14/c8fd6c30-2138-11e7-ad74-3a742a6e93a7_story.html?utm_term=.0bde59feeca1 [Accessed 25 Jul. 2019].

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Stewart, J. (2013). ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color. 1st ed. Bloomsbury USA, p.viii, vii, ix,.

 

Stiles, K. and Selz, P. (2012). Theories and documents of contemporary art. Berkeley: University of California Press, p.649.

Sturgis, D. (2016). Glitter, Neon, and Good Old Fashioned Paint: Three Abstract Painters Pushing the Medium Forward. [online] Artspace. Available at: https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/book_report/vitamin-p3-abstraction-excerpt-54248 [Accessed 12 May 2019].

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Weaver, C. (2018). What Is Glitter? A strange journey to the glitter factory.. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/21/style/glitter-factory.html [Accessed 12 May 2019].

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