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How Contemporary Art can open up emotional exploration with young people

Our first blog is written by Iniva Creative Learning Co-founder, Lyn French. Lyn is an art therapist, counsellor and psychoanalytic psychotherapist. As a Director of A Space, Hackney, East London, she supervises trainee and qualified therapists and manages school-based services. She also teaches on the MSc in Counselling and Psychotherapy at Birkbeck, University of London. Her most recent book Therapeutic Practice in Schools (Edited with Reva Klein) is available from Routledge.

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If they were to give it any thought at all, many young people would probably make common assumptions about why artists make art and what they draw their inspiration from. They might imagine artists have unexpected flashes of insight or that they have what we would call ‘a grand narrative’ in mind. Interest and curiosity can be sparked when young people realise that artists are simply trying to communicate what it’s like to be human, that is, their take on what it’s like to be alive to the complexities,  pleasures, issues and ambiguities of everyday life and to capture ‘felt experiences’ which might be hard to put into words.

Contemporary artists have a real advantage – they’re reflecting on, commenting about and generally de-coding or de-constructing today’s world. Even if artists choose to focus on overtly social or political themes, their personal and emotional experiences will be embedded in their work either consciously or unconsciously. It is not necessary – or even relevant – for us as viewers to know the precise feeling state of the artist. Instead, to borrow a phrase from psychoanalysis, we can look at an image, object, photograph or installation and ‘freely associate’.  The aim of free association is not to work something out through logical analysis. Instead, we let go of self-censorship or judgement or the need to ‘have the right answer’ or the ‘accepted point of view’ and allow our own associations, ideas, feelings, questions and impressions float to the surface.  Looking at art is, at its core, a relational experience. In another words, we evolve our own relationship with the work through discovering meaning in it that is particular to us.  Ideas and thoughts make a lasting impact, when we can engage with their emotional content or when we are moved or touched or agitated or stimulated in some way.

Take the image by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla of a man motoring across a body of water on an upturned table from the set of cards Who are you? Where are you going?’.

Allora Calzidilla 1 medium Some see it as capturing the need to make an urgent escape from a real situation which may be threatening the man’s very survival or as a metaphor to convey the human desire to flee from uncomfortable feelings such as shame, guilt or anxiety. Others read it as the opposite, seeing the man as someone who playfully and rather ingeniously transforms a table into a boat, perhaps creatively responding to a lack of resources by improvising.  Still others view it as a reference to home with the table representing family gatherings and seeing the image as illustrating the way in which we take our earliest and enduring experiences of home with us wherever we go.

None of these readings is more accurate than the other. And none of them may bear even the slightest resemblance to what the artists had in mind but that’s not the point.  Asking young people to describe the image and to say what they think the artist is trying to convey can reveal some interesting perspectives! From here, it’s easy to go on to ask what the man in the boat might be feeling. If he is seen as fleeing, he might be terrified, anxious, shocked, or panicked. If he is playing around, he may be relaxed, excited, proud of his invention, showing off and so on.  And then we might ask in what situations or circumstances at school or with friends might someone feel the same way.   Or we could stay with the first interpretation and think about why people might have to take flight from their homeland. This could lead into a discussion about the meaning of political asylum and touch on the cultural diversity of today’s major cities. Bringing it back to the personal, we could explore what both attracts us and scares us about difference.

Contemporary artists use intriguing and unexpected approaches to making work, as Allora and Calzadilla’s piece shows.  They often use video, film, photography or installation which can have an immediate currency. Contemporary work often surprises young people and may instantly challenge what they might think art is ‘supposed to be’.  Experiencing their assumptions disrupted and new perspectives opening up is of significant value. We all have a tendency to cling to the familiar unless we’re prompted to think differently. When we do take this risk, it can be very exciting and sharpen our capacity for critical thinking.

Young people need opportunities to discover that they have their own ideas and that they can play with them, share them and re-shape them.  Being able to make links, to connect up ideas and impressions, memories and feelings and be at ease with these processes is at the heart of emotional literacy.  As the theme of the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 highlighted, we all need to build our capacity to ‘think with the senses and feel with the mind’.  There’s no better way in than to use contemporary art as a starting point!

Written by Paddy Chatterton