My Doubtful Mind

Linden Gallery, Melbourne
18 April – 25 May 2008

As curators Jan Duffy and Alex Taylor write in the catalogue for their show My Doubtful Mind, ‘art and anxiety make a happy couple’. It can be argued that art springs from anxiety; that artists often draw upon dark recesses to create their work. Duffy and Taylor wanted the artists contributing to this exhibition to share their phobias with the audience, to make visitors as uncomfortable as possible.

The panel discussion accompanying the show featured an anthropologist/writer (Chris Eipper), a hypnotist (Daryl Wilkinson), a doctor/writer (Leah Kaminsky) and two of the artists. Daryl Wilkinson was very eloquent about the ways in which art speaks to the unconscious and how it can help to overcome phobias. The artists Dominic Redfern and David Rozetsky, were remarkably open about the role of their phobias in their art-making. With two medical practitioners taking part in the discussion, it was akin to a therapeutic exercise, involving private admissions and the dispensation of expert advice.

Artists sometimes make art from the things that terrify them in an effort to assuage their phobias. In his multimedia work Not That, Not Now, Dominic Redfern explores his extreme fear of bananas which stems from a TV commercial from his youth. As his case demonstrates, phobias can usually be traced back to a particular triggering event. Redfern is particularly interested in the role of screen-based media and its effects on our self-identity. Television in particular has a powerfully hypnotic effect, as his personal narrative attests.

During the panel discussion, David Rozetsky admitted that he suffers from a social phobia from time to time. Therefore, it is not surprising that he often explores group dynamics in his art. His sound installation Self Talk suggests a parody of the billion dollar industries devoted to capitalising on people’s fears. A soothing female voice recites a series of questions and statements that have no resolution. Insecure consumers may turn to self help material like this, which raises more questions than it answers, thereby disturbing them further.

Dan Spielman’s work Shadowing may unsettle viewers because it is made up of arcane writing, letters and numbers which are perfectly ordered, yet the meaning remains opaque. At the exhibition opening, playwright Daniel Keene performed a spoken piece to complement Spielman’s work. The sentence ‘A rhythm inscribes the silence’ in the catalogue is a clue to the meaning of Shadowing which is inscribed by an insistent visual rhythm.

Soo-Joo Yoo’s aptly titled Hold Your Breath! uses found materials such as gutter guards, vinyl, aluminium pipes, hoses and rubber mats to create a visual metaphor for an anxiety attack. This installation inhabited a small space in the gallery but was particularly affecting in its chaotic intensity.

Natasha Johns-Messenger and Leslie Eastman’s Dark Light, a massive camera obscura that took up two rooms, was one of the most impressive pieces in the show, but it is unclear how it related to the overall theme and there was no effort to make explicit connections in the catalogue. Dark Light could possibly be linked to photophobia, or light sensitivity, bordering on fear. The dark room which housed the projection of the camera had its entrance boarded up, which could have confused viewers and made them feel slightly claustrophobic.

The catalogue contains a number of short stories which riff on the theme of phobias. Christos Tsiolkas’s piece tells the story of Costa, a boy who does not know any fear till he sees a blind man’s milky eyes and disgraces himself in public, which inevitably propels him towards his own darkness. Another story, by Chris Eipper, explores a woman’s pathological relationship with her ex-husband, a shrink who tells her the horror stories of his patients in order to play on her fears. This story demonstrates the attraction and repulsion involved with phobias. Perversely, we are drawn to the things that we fear most.

Curiously, there is an upside to phobias which is easily overlooked. They can actually function as a kind of coping mechanism. Phobia sufferers may project all of their anxieties onto a particular object as an unconscious strategy for containing them more neatly; as long as that thing is avoided then their life is manageable. Some fears seem more rational than others: for instance ‘tocophobia’ or fear of childbirth, a condition which was mentioned by Daryl Wilkinson, who regularly treats this problem. Yet phobias are all equally real for their sufferers, no matter how ridiculous they might appear to the outside observer. Curators Duffy and Taylor recognise the comic potential of phobias as well as their tragic dimension. Other people’s phobias have entertainment value for us, but it is not so amusing to be confronted by one’s own fears head-on. We should admire those hardy individuals who are willing to stare down their demons and transform them into art in the process.