In this post, artist and illustrator Nina Eide Holtan and poet and writer Marte Huke reflect on their experiences creating and curating an exhibition on anxiety disorders with a multi-disciplinary team.
At Curating Health: Graphic Medicine and Visual Representations of Illness, organized by the Nordic Network for Gender, Body and Health, I presented a talk about the collaborative process behind the exhibition “U;REDD” (Fearless) which was a multi-disciplinary collaboration between the Medical Museum, St.Olav Hospital, Medicine and Health Library at NTNU, poet Marte Huke and myself, Nina Eide Holtan as the artist/illustrator.The exhibition is currently open to the public until March 2020.
The medical museum states that the main intention of the exhibition U;REDD is to confront social stigma and create hope around mental health problems, in particular anxiety disorders. Marte and I were commissioned early in the process based on the collaborative work-group’s conclusion that “something visual” was needed in order to convey the aspects of anxiety that were difficult to describe through medical texts and object displays. Involved in the project was a conglomerate of parties with varied interests, roles and backgrounds which lead to some interesting entanglements and dynamics along the way.
Through initial discussions with the work-group and an extended committee, it was clear that there was a need for an expression of the non-discursive and phenomenological experiences of mental illness. We wanted to connect the audience with their embodied understanding of fear and despair. The fact that both Marte and I coincidentally had past experiences with anxiety disorder was unknown when the commission began. However, as artists this archive of emotion was the basis of our work in this project.
I knew creating this work would prove difficult on several levels. In order to create a truthful expression I would need to deeply re-connect with painful experiences from the past, and although I had begun to move past the shame, the thought of sharing something this intimate with an open audience was quite intimidating. However, the message behind the exhibition was motivating and empowering, particularly as a former patient whom once was silent in fear of being devalued by societal pressure to “be strong”.
The medical museum consists of two rooms at St.Olav’s hospital in Trondheim. Our commission was to make artwork for the front room, while the second room was to be filled with medical sources, providing a different insight to anxiety disorders. Our artistic concept was to create a graphic narrative in a form that is accessible to most audiences in hopes that it could create a sense of empowerment in those who suffer from anxiety, and an enhanced understanding for those who do not. Through large scale drawings and poetic texts, fictive characters play out scenarios of the visceral emotion and intimate thoughts that take place in the mind of a young female.
And this is where the challenges began.
The creative idea here was to externalize the girl’s lurking fear and destructive thoughts in the form of a masked beast and a vulture. When this drawing was introduced an interesting discussion arose in the workgroup. One of committee members claimed it as a representation of psychosis rather than anxiety, and was concerned that this may confuse the audience.
Implicit in this response is a preconceived notion of what anxiety (or psychosis) looks like and an authority on how an audience would interpret the artwork. My expression of subjective experiences conflicted with another´s professional knowledge of the general. I reclaimed authority as an artist in the situation by exemplifying the expansive use of external characters as representations of internal turmoil through art and contemporary visual culture. Examples of other works with similar concept that audiences have connected to in the past, like The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli and contemporary examples from graphic medicine such as I had a Black Dog by Matthew Johnstone.
Despite the research suggesting that anxiety disorders are associated with suicide attempts the museum´s selection of medical texts omitted any mention of this. However, we wanted to illustrate these destructive thoughts of suicide and how they intertwine with the everyday.
The poetic texts and images are loosely connected but not explicit in meaning, leaving the audience to wonder and make personal connections. Maybe even discuss with someone else in the audience.
Understandably, given that the museum is located in a hospital, the committee had reservations about this particular illustration. Fortunately they took the risk, concluding that if the intention of the exhibition was to confront the stigma associated with mental illness then we needed to be able to acknowledge the issues of suicide and suicidal ideation. In place of a suicide statistic, a drawing is there to open up a taboo subject for conversation and reflection.
Based on the work-group’s general concern around the darkness of the story, the premise evolved that the opposing wall compensate this through a large colourful piece dedicated to positivity and hope. So the story ends with the image (below) of the anxiety beast embracing the girl, and the vulture has flown away.
In this piece the atmosphere is warmer, calmer and more peaceful than the opposite wall. However, we wanted to resist ending on a simplified message of hope and positivity “compensating” for the distress of mental illness. Consequently, we included the caption ‘let go, and hold on’ to create tension between the image and text, and render the drawing more ambivalent. Because in our experience of anxiety disorders fear does not go away, but it is how we relate to the fear that is harmful.
This is an exhibition where contrasting perspectives merge into the same space and subsequently interact in complex ways. In biomedicine the overriding tone is scientific not spiritual, objective not impassioned and abstracted rather than tangible . Where biomedicine needs empirical evidence, drawings can use humor and imagination, and where the rational becomes insensitive, the arts can give nuance to the phenomenological experience.
Art is by its nature based on the subjective, however the problem arises when a reductionist view of a subjective narrative is deemed less valid than that of the generalist or the specialist. As artists we shouldn’t be in service or in opposition to the clinical perspective, but productively entangled with a ‘biomedical culture’.
Although the collaboration involved risk to all parties it has resulted in an exhibition that is well-received by the audience. In the most recent post in the guestbook these words were written:
“This exhibition has helped me put into words and pictures the feelings that I have experienced the last few months. Thank you”.
Nina Eide Hoaltan is an artist and illustrator and Associate professor at the AD faculty, NTNU. She leads cross-disciplinary group teaching foundation courses in drawing, illustration, colour and form-composition. She has a MA in Architecture and 15 years of freelance experience with illustration and artistic production.
Marte Huke is a writer and poet who has published five poetry collections and a novel. She has a forthcoming collection due for publication this Autumn. www.martehuke.com
 S.R. Davies, M. Horst, Science Communication,(2016) 174 -176