Psychic Realities

Walter Seidl, PhD

The question of art’s importance as a relevant indicator for social change is always linked to questions regarding current collective emotional tendencies and to ‚psychogeographical‘ factors. While four decades ago art was considered a means of drawing attention to politically unrecognized and publicly or medially invisible forms of life and corporeally represented identity formations, today, in the wake of the increasing opening of image worlds through media and internet, it is less the visible body that is at issue than the image of the individual’s mental state, which is to no small extent considered to be the result of a continually accelerating social transformation.

Seen from an art-historical perspective, the 1960s mark the beginnings of efforts toward social change as well as the increasing visibility of psychological behavior models found outside of every construction of ‚normality‘, which demands certain forms of behavior while often thwarting personal ideas and desires. For many artworks – regardless of their medium – the decisive factor is the social conditions that lead to forms of behavior in connection with pathological personality structures and stimulate a host of discriminatory repercussions. The genesis of artistic production that explores behavior models beyond public visibility while encouraging their acceptance is to be found in the USA of the 1960s and 1970s. Initially, models of social inclusion and exclusion were primarily discussed within the framework of feminism, whereby problems concerning discrimination against women were primarily brought into a relationship with phenomena such as hysteria and depression.

One of the early films to deal with the problem of psychological dependence on social surroundings was A Woman Under the Influence. The 1974 film directed by John Cassavetes, which in the meantime has come to the attention of a broader public, was nominated for an Oscar in 1975. The film centers on the world of Mabel, a housewife married to the construction worker Nick. She knows no life beyond maintaining her household and caring for her children, and thus she represses her innermost needs until she in the end begins an affair and drowns her worries in alcohol. Her husband explains her embarrassing actions with the comment that his wife is not mad, but merely somewhat strange, whereby the construct of insanity is put into question from the very beginning. Incidents arising in her dealings with neighbors eventually necessitate that Mabel spend six months in a psychiatric clinic before she can return to her ‚normal‘ life. The film vividly demonstrates how problems of mental deviance were already being explored in a public context in the American cinema and art of the 1970s and how the treatment of psychiatric patients had automatically become an everyday image.

While Cassavetes’ film leaves the clinic stay off screen, the situation is reversed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a film based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, which was produced during the same year. The book and the film tell of the problems arising in a psychiatric hospital and explore the potential for transformation found in the interaction of patients and personnel. The plot clearly illustrates the fears and needs of psychiatric patients in the 1960s and 1970s, an era during which this problem was being discussed publicly in the USA but not in Europe. Since the 1960s, American literature has produced a number of works dealing with depression and schizophrenia and their treatment that have found their place in the canon of world literature. A good example is provided by Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel The Bell Jar, which takes an autobiographical approach to the literary and artistic exploration of depression through the fictional life of nineteen-year-old Esther Greenwood. The protagonist is a student accustomed to easy success in school who receives a scholarship to a prestigious East Coast university, but whose mental condition necessitates hospitalization in a psychiatric clinic.

In Europe, on the contrary, the image of the psychiatric patient has even today not yet found its place in public perception. While psychological problems had become general knowledge in the USA during the 1960s, they received limited attention in Western Europe. Here, with the exception of the medical field, it was primarily the artistic field that reacted to forms of social and mental deviance, in part also on account of the continual exchange occurring between the artists of both continents. In Austria VALIE EXPORT was the first artist to explore mental formations, primarily in the context of the female psyche, and her Actions and films also received attention in the American art scene. The 1984 film Syntagma provides an overview of the key elements of EXPORT’s early work: in a literal, grammatical sense it links a contiguous chain of elements from EXPORT’s artistic production with the problems of a gender-specific sociality. In Syntagma, EXPORT focuses on the disjunction in the female psyche between the woman’s own body and its masculinely dominated environment, whereby she draws inspiration from the British psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who dealt with the problems of schizophrenia in his 1960 book The Divided Self while speaking out for the social acceptance of the phenomenon known in everyday language as ‚madness‘. EXPORT underpins the visual schism of the body from its environment with the statement: ‚The body clearly takes the position between me and the world, on the one hand, the body is the center of my world. On the other, it is an object in the world of the Others.‘3 In EXPORT’s work it has from the very beginning been of central importance that the female body no longer represents an object of (male) desire, but that it be perceived in society as a subject with fully equal rights. The psychical disjunction that repeatedly appears in Syntagma through the photographic superimposition of body parts should not only be understood as a reference to schizophrenia, but also to the social inequities of the 1970s, which here, as they did for Cassavetes, represented the source of neurotic, psychotic and depressive actions and which were considered a barrier to be overcome in terms of both gender and society.

How does the relationship between the inner feelings of the psyche, therapeutic and social perspectives, and public visibility manifest itself in the international art discourse forty years later? This project attempts to focus on the current significance of psychosocial transformations in the art field and to shed light on explorations of consciousness for varying psychical constellations within the media context of the twenty-first century. Psychic Realities presents ten international artistic approaches that explore the borderline region between socially standardized behavior and pathologically connoted personality constructions and pursues the question of how those behavior patterns that are not necessarily in accord with social models of normality are subject to depathologizing mechanisms and manifest themselves in varying social situations.

The political and global transformations of the last decades have brought about the unhindered dissemination of information via media and internet and given rise to a new formulation of the psychogeographies of Western models for living. In recent years an appeal has been made for more tolerance of heterogeneous modes of living, letting VALIE EXPORT’s work become part of an artistic avant-garde and making new demands on artists in a globalized world with a vanishing East-West dialectic. With regard to the latter, there is a movement toward reflecting on practices of life that are not within the sphere of an accepted reality or normality, and are thus subjected to the judgmental scrutiny of society, and integrating them into general processes of democratization. This also applies to the significantly increasing demands made on the individual and to the influence of the information density in a media and professional sense, which demands spatial and temporal flexibility in both public and private life. This social transformation gives rise to psychological and biological changes in the individual, which in the end are also reflected in changes occurring in society as a whole. In professional life, increased pressure and perpetual changes of place create zones of precariousness which have a marked effect on the rhythm of life, inducing chronobiological dissonances and leading to psychological disorders.

The artists who have been invited to participate in Psychic Realities devote their attention to current life practices, whereby they investigate problems arising from psychopathologically conspicuous behavior, ranging from alcohol as an accepted everyday drug to bipolar disorders, anxiety and depression as well as the results of treatment using therapy and medication. The visual depiction of psychological deviation from the norm sheds light on this reality, its life circumstances and its right to existence, drawing attention to an everyday fact that is often repressed in public attention, but which according to a 2005 EU Green Book affects one in four members of society: ‚People afflicted by psychological disorders and mental illness continue to be faced with stigmatization and discrimination and with a neglect of their human rights and human dignity. This reality puts into question Europe’s fundamental values.‘2 In Europe, mental disabilities and disorders continue to be denied a place in everyday life and in the visual images through with it is represented, and this is also reflected in the marketing of social realities. The decades-long head start enjoyed by the United States with regard to eliminating discrimination against ‚mentally and physically challenged people‘ can be observed in numerous consumer products. One example is the production of a Barbie doll in a wheelchair – something which already exists in the USA but would be unthinkable in Europe. The situation is similar with regard to the acceptance of mentally related limitations in everyday life.

The effects of this divergence on everyday life is shown by numerous studies, which are also manifested in the artworks shown here. The disorder displaying the most dramatic increase in recent years is anxiety. Already widespread in the USA during the 1950s, its prevalence has increased through economic growth and the individual’s fear of performing inadequately in professional life. Be it in Europe, Japan or the USA, the trend is increasing most of all in the countries that are flourishing economically, where the prevalence of anxiety exceeds that of all other psychological disorders. While it is most of all the treatment of dementia that affects the economy through its high costs, anxiety disorders endanger mental health in general, which the WHO defines as a ‚state of well-being in which the individual can utilize his or her full potential, cope with the strains of a normal life, work productively and fruitfully and make a contribution to his or her community.‘3 By way of situations arising in the course of everyday developments that affect individuals of every sort, Psychic Realities shows how different achievements, abilities and feelings can be: nonetheless, they can all productively contribute to the multiplicity of experiences which are essential to life.

  • 1 VALIE EXPORT. Syntagma, Vienna: 1984, 18 min. Distribution: Sixpackfilm.
  • 2 GREEN PAPER. Improving the mental health of the population: Towards a strategy on mental health for the European Union. Brussels: 14.10.2005, KOM (2005) 484, P. 3.
  • 3 Ibid, P. 4.