Representing mental illness

Note: if you don’t want to get personal, just don’t read this.

Mental health issues are always difficult to approach, be it in sociological or artistic terms. Both as a student and as a teacher, not a year goes by without crossing paths with photographic narratives that aim at questioning the stigma befalling the mental health issues. It’s true, they usually fail at it. Usually a student claims to know about depression and wants to represent it or someone in the family has a mental illness and they want to document its impact on their relationships. Why do they usually fail? Although I don’t have an answer for it, I think there’s always some truth in such failures. Maybe the problem has to do with representational schemes and how our artistic immaturity sometimes leads us to approach photography as if it were an illustration device. But maybe the core of the problem lies somewhere else: in our general disregard for things we cannot see?

Ten years ago I spent a month in a mental hospital. Every time I say that out loud one of two things happen: either a silence follows or “the issue” is avoid. As I see it, these are good indications of how we, as a society, keep ignoring our mental struggles. Let’s face it: there’s a huge stigma around it because mental illness (for the majority of people) equals weakness. In that sense, men have it even worse, because they used to be seen as the providers. It’s the same with alcoholism: most people address it as a failure, a weakness, not as a disease (I remember a particular debate in Britain that got a lot of attention back in 2012; there’s also this brilliant post by Pete Brook).

People who claim to have “a scientific mind” tend to be the first to cast unfortunate judgments upon those who suffer from such problems. Yes, I know this too well. Families also struggle with everything, being that this “everything” can be summed up in the way they deny language altogether: not saying the name of the illness; not saying words like “mental hospital”, etc, etc. The stigma also underestimates the impact of mental illnesses, but what it is most likely to do is ignore the problem all together. It’s as if the suffering, the anguish, the hallucinations, etc., weren’t proof enough of the existence of something like an illness. It’s as if people were expecting to see physical traces of it: some blood, some swelling, some skirmishes, who knows? For instances, when I entered the hospital I was already incontinent, had lost too much weight and had mobility problems. Do they count as symptoms? They do, of course, but still “the scientific minds” like to relate them to specific deficits (vitamins, for example), managing to ignore the core of the problem, once again.

Being that I was studying photography at the time, over the years that followed that summer I often thought about how to represent that experience, meaning: how to represent the profound struggle with myself and others that had led me to that hospital. I know now I was asking the wrong question, for that struggle is not representable and what can be transferred to the aesthetic dimension is something of a different order; it is transient, abstract, it’s about shape and color, not semiotic language.

David Nebreda, Après huit séances d’incisions sur la poitrine et les épaules, il atteint à une certaine tranquillité, l´hommage et le tribut étant alors accomplish, 29-7-1989.
© David Nebreda, Après huit séances d’incisions sur la poitrine et les épaules, il atteint à une certaine tranquillité, l´hommage et le tribut étant alors accomplish, 29-7-1989.

For example, we could consider the above photograph by David Nebreda (yes, I know, him again) as an illustration of how mental illness impacts the human body and how one could represent that. I know a lot of people already think Nebreda’s work is about his schizophrenia, but I couldn’t disagree more. It’s not about HIS mental illness, HIS schizophrenia, but about something that is universally understood as suffering, particularly about the space between disappearance and presence, about the struggle to exist, in all its plenitude: exist! It is about vitality, originality, presence, dynamics. As I see it, what makes his way of doing authentic is its truth, and this truth (of an ethical nature) is present as an aesthetic quality. 

© Sofia Silva, 'Three Entrances', from the project 'The Orchestra', 2011
© Sofia Silva, Three Entrances, from the project The Orchestra, 2011.

When I was asking the wrong question I did the photograph above. Although I see some truth in it, I recognize it fails as an expression of the state of transformation I was trying to allude to. I think for an artist (or an image-maker) finding a language of his/her own is the most difficult of things. And that language, that style, that expression needs only follow one star: truth. I’m not talking about “being true to oneself” or about “truthfulness” in a pure ethical way but, instead, truth as an aesthetic dimension. I guess that sums up my definition of authenticity: truth as as aesthetic quality…

A new pair of eyes

Extreme fatigue can change your perspective on things, but so can euphoria and melancholia. I guess our perception on what is or is not part of our conceptualized reality is heavily influenced by our biological and psychological conditions. Having said that, most of the so called altered states of perception tend to be transient, not defining the way we go about life.

As 2017 approached, I found myself experiencing a sort of change that may well be of a different kind. After spending nearly three months in a state of extreme tiredness, I’m now ready for a new chapter and what is most surprising about finally taking a break and spending some days away from work is that my perspective on reality is going through a deep change. It’s as though a new sense of pleasure is changing the way things look, smell and feel. For example a bird, the sort of animal I’ve never used to pay much attention before, is now a source of delight. 

Now back at work and seeing the daily news, everything seems too distant, as if my concept of reality got reduced to a very small circle that comprises only those who are near to me, as well as my beliefs, dreams and responsibilities. This is obviously troubling in many different aspects: 1) for once, the events happening all around the world seem to be reallocated to a fictional dimension. Such a feeling is unsettling, not only because it questions my social identity, but also because it makes it hard to think about the historical, political, economic and social dimensions that tend to define one’s place in the world. Trump’s existence, per se, seems improbable – see the problem?; 2) but this also brings a new light on my nearest environment, highlighting different spaces of affirmative action, as if suddenly a new giant field of possibilities has just opened.

Writing a thesis is a crazy lonely process that I wouldn’t want to repeat. Although it is rewarding in many different aspects, it can also bring about a way of thinking about things that is (too) disconnected from others’ reality and a clash may well settle in once that scheme of logic starts to lose its ground. Now coming back to social media and going through some general discussions about photography and the visual field, I struggle to adapt to this “new pair of eyes”.

Take for example this news from The Guardian about a photographer who captured images of unknown Amazonian tribe. Do people think it is acceptable that curiosity drives our decision making process? On The Guardian, one journalist says that Brazilian photographer Ricardo Stuckert had “a moment of luck” when his flight took a detour and he spotted this tribe. The same news also quotes the author saying “I thought, ‘You have to photograph this, it has to be preserved’.” But what exactly does this sort of imagery help preserve? Really, how does this approach contributes to an antropological study about “their way of being”?

© Ricardo Stuckert.
© Ricardo Stuckert, 2016.

In another article, a multimedia journalist named Dan Collyns calls Struckert’s photographs remarkable and then goes one to recount his own experience with indigenous people, letting us know how Peru’s official policy of “no contact” has been able to protect and cushion tribes like the one shown in Stuckert’s photographs. But can we, on the one hand, promote this “no contact”/”no invasion” policy and, on the other hand, promote this sort of imagery? How is Stuckert’s decision to make these photos public not an act of exploitation?

When I read on the news that the photographer accidentally stumblled on these photographs I can’t help but laugh and remember the sort of excuses lovers often give one another to avoid confrontation. He may have spotted the event by chance, but everything else after that is product of his conscious choices, not randomness. Did he have to show the images? Do we need to see them? Should we promote the idea that young photographs should go out and photograph people in their private lives?

But besides me having a difficulty in understanding why no one questions the need to make these photographs public, what this new pair of eyes struggle most is with the hundreds of journalists calling the photographs spectacular, as if there was something absolutely new in the photographs, as if the world had just waken up to another way of living…

┐ Rafael Lage – tupi or not tupi └

Rafael is documenting the life and struggle of street artisans in Brazil and mapping contemporary nomadic culture. To know more about his project and support it go here

10131_101841993165019_5483277_nUntitled-1 copy415906_576285225720691_1876987467_o

I am only interested in what’s not mine. The law of men. The law of the cannibal.

We are tired of all those suspicious Catholic husbands in plays. Freud finished off the enigma of woman and the other recent psychological seers.

What dominated over truth was clothing, an impermeable layer between the interior world and the exterior world. Reaction against people in clothes. The American cinema will tell us about this.

The spirit refuses to conceive spirit without body. Anthropomorphism. Necessity of cannibalistic vaccine. For proper balance against the religions of the meridian. And exterior inquisitions.

We can only be present to the hearing world.

We had the right codification of vengeance. The codified science of Magic. Cannibalism. For the permanent transformation of taboo into totem.

Against the reversible world and objectified ideas. Made into cadavers. The halt of dynamic thinking. The individual a victim of the system. Source of classic injustices. Of romantic injustices. And the forgetfulness of interior conquests.

Screenplays. Screenplays. Screenplays. Screenplays. Screenplays. Screenplays. Screenplays.

Against Memory the source of habit. Renewed for personal experience.

We are concrete. We take account of ideas, we react, we burn people in the public squares. We suppress ideas and other kinds of paralysis. Through screenplays. To believe in our signs, to believe in our instruments and our stars.

Against Goethe, against the mother of the Gracos, and the Court of Don Juan VI.

Happiness is the real proof.

The struggle between what we might call the Uncreated and the Created – illustrated by the permanent contradiction of man and his taboo. Daily love and the capitalist modus vivendi. Cannibalism. Absorption of the sacred enemy. To transform him into a totem. The human adventure. Earthly finality. However, only the pure elite manage to realize carnal cannibalism within, some sense of life, avoiding all the evils Freud identified, those religious evils. What yields nothing is a sublimation of the sexual instinct. It is a thermometric scale of cannibalist instinct. Once carnal, it turns elective and creates friendship. Affectivity, or love. Speculative, science. It deviates and transfers. We arrive at utter vilification. In base cannibalism, our baptized sins agglomerate – envy, usury, calumny, or murder. A plague from the so-called cultured and Christianized, it’s what we are acting against. Cannibals.

excerpts of Manifesto Antropófago/Cannibal Manifesto by OSWALD DE ANDRADE, 1928. full manifesto here

┐ Hélio Oiticica – Be marginal, Be a hero └

megulho do corpo, hélio© Hélio Oiticica, Bólide Caixa  22, Mergulho no Corpo, 1966-1967

oiticica_helio02g© Hélio Oiticica, Parangolé, 1964

Helio-Oiticica-seja-marginal-seja-herói© Hélio Oiticica, Seja Marginal, Seja Herói, 1968

tropicalia© Hélio Oiticica, Tropicália PN 2 and PN3, de 1967

cosmococas© Hélio Oiticica, Cosmococa 5 – Hendrix War

Sorry but I couldn’t find the following text in English and it really is the one presenting the kind of analogy I wanted to call forward. It compares the work of Helio Oiticica with the work of Derek Jarman and it couldn’t be more poignant…

“Caminhando pela exposição de Jarman em 97, chamou-me a atenção a fotografia de 1969 do autor-ator com uma capa, uma cape-dollar, muito similar aos parangolés de Oiticica de 64 em diante. A foto de Jarman data do mesmo ano da famosa exposição de Oiticica na Galeria Whitechapell em Londres. A fotografia denuncia a impossibilidade da repetição da performance (dissolvida ou transformada no instante mesmo da sua aparição), sua unicidade, sua eventualidade, ao constituir-se em um registro em 2º grau, simulacro, verdade frustrada e impossível. De qualquer forma, Jarman está contra um parede de tijolos à vista, num happening com uma das várias capas que fez entre 69 e 71. Trata-se de uma arte que junta restos colhidos do Rio Tâmisa, notas de dólar ou mesmo símbolos alquímicos sobre uma capa transparente. O que nos interessa é a possibilidade de um hyper-texto, não exatamente se Jarman viu a exposição de Oiticica. Provavelmente sim, mas esta não é a questão. A questão é ler um pelo outro, juntar alguns hyper-elementos que os artistas recolheram desde a noção de que a arte pode sair de seu espaço passivo de observação, para um campo performativo de incursão no espaço social, numa ação marginal em relação aos sistemas culturais centrados, ainda que híbridos por formação.

PTV6O que surpreende na fotografia era o design complexo e sua rede de relações: Jarman parece um bispo hippie, que desde a ótica do Oiticica poderia ser lido como uma imensa tropicália. Isto relembra-nos que ambos faziam uma intervenção estética no universo urbano, relacionando a arte com a produção de subjetividades críticas em relação ao mundo capitalista, especialmente no que tange à expressão de uma identidade cultural ou sexual, e que, a despeito desta universalidade, ambos eram leitores de seus micro-territórios, dos seus lugares. (…)

Pode-se pensar a marginalidade como heroísmo em Oiticica e um heroísmo como marginalidade na imagem do mártir queer de Jarman. Com efeito, há entre ambos uma névoa do poeta maudito de Baudelaire. Tal idéia advém de um desdobramento de termos e tempos que Benjamin propõe na leitura de Baudelaire: Baudelaire moldou a imagem do artista de acordo com a imagem do herói. Desde o começo eles se equivalem, num contexto onde há uma fratura crucial entre o poeta e a sociedade. Por que ele não gostava de seu tempo ou por que ele não queria iludir a si mesmo, engendrou várias figuras reativas: Flâneur, Apache, Dandy, Trapeiro. Eles são os simulacros de herói em um palco subitamente esvaziado de atores. Cada um destes personagens vai configurar um relacionamento com o tempo: o anti-movimento diferencial, o alimentar-se dos restos, etc. O heroísmo emerge desta situação paradoxal: frente às ruínas e restos dos sistemas de certeza, frente a transformação da arte em produto e do público em massa, o artista faz da imagem de si uma linguagem de resistência.”

excerpt of Be marginal, be hero: art, identity and gender in Hélio Oiticica and Derek Jarman, by Wladimir Antônio da Costa Garcia. continue reading here

More of Helio’s work here

Helio’s MAJOR exhibition is in Portugal @ CCB until January 6th, 2013

┐ Marcelo Zocchio └

© Marcelo Zocchio, guarda-roupa, 2010


© Marcelo Zocchio, fusca, from the series Utilidades Domésticas (Domestic Utilities), 2005


Marcelo’s portfolio here (pdf)

┐ Zlatko Kopljar └

© Zlatko Kopljar, from the series K11, 2007

© Zlatko Kopljar, from the series K11, 2007

Although Zlatko is known for his performances (his k9 compassion series leading the show), I hereby present two photographs from a series intended to dignify his fellow colleagues and artists who never aimed to be apart of the mainstream, to become a brand, to sell their art. Some of us borderline the idea of being marginal and/or being apart of the market. Apart from each one considerations, I do believe ethics and the strength of the work are above all. I publish these photographs not to applaud this so called marginal artists but to speak of the idea that not all of us need to be published, loved or appreciate to feel that work is successful or accomplished its purposes. It depends on why you do what you do and whether or not the reasons to be apart of the market are purely capitalist ones.

More of Zlatko’s work here

in collaboration with photographer Mario Kučera

┐ Alice Miceli └

© Alice Miceli, from the Chernobyl Project – The Invisible Stain, 2007-10

© Alice Miceli, from the Chernobyl Project – The Invisible Stain, 2007-10

“The project’s ambition is to create a radiographic series of images of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone depicting the most affected regions located on the Belarusian side of the border. These stunning images are imprinted by the invisible radiation that has contaminated the area since the disaster on 26 April 1986.

Requiring the creation of specific technologies, including the development of auto-radiographic techniques and led-pinhole cameras, The Invisible Stain uses new processes in the field of photography to uncover haunting images of an abandoned place filled by an invisible matter and exposed only through Miceli’s documentation, enabling her to produce mimetic, life-size negative images of Chernobyl’s past.”

source: transmediale

More of Alice’s work here

║ Rodrigo Braga ║

© Rodrigo Braga, Communion 1, from the series Communion, 2006

© Rodrigo Braga, Communion 3, from the series Communion, 2006

“From diverse works in such way made, result hybrid images, where distinct components become close to each other without never have being fully integrated in something unique. Images where the discomfort of the body in the world is not attenuated in no instant, being, in contrast, emphasized. In more recent works, however, the decisive proximity between culture and nature stops to be the obvious reference of Rodrigo Braga’s photographies to become an implicit question that motivates the work of the artist. In it, there is not anymore the ostensive presence of his body, but only the presentation of scenes that suggest – because of the tense silence that marks the suppression of forms of animal life – the immeasurable pressure to which the contemporary being, in its pretension of unicity and sovereignty, is submitted the entire time.
Moacir dos Anjos

To see more of Rodrigo’s work click here