Text by Michelle Collier
The modern city never sleeps. It is always switched on, plugged in, a hive of positive energy and activity, ever producing, creating, populating, and stimulating. But it can also be consuming, confusing, and isolating.
There has long been debate over how urban environments impact upon mental and emotional states. Urban Psychosis at The Holden Gallery aims to explore this complex spectrum of everyday urban existence, featuring work from the last 30 years by a number of artists, including; John Baldessari, Matthew Buckingham, Sophie Calle, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Moyra Davey, Luke Fowler, Gillian Wearing, and Catherine Yass.
The works on display are an attempt at psychogeography. They seek to explore the city through our relationship to it, shedding light on how urban environments influence our emotional identity and behavior. The exhibition has it’s origins in literature, citing George Simmel’s ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ as an early reference point. Though each work varies in approach, it can as a collection be seen to explore the recurring presence of urban psychosis through themes of estrangement, fragmentation, identity, and isolation, seeking to find moments where the balance of normality tips.
At the more literary end of the scale, Moyra Davey’s ‘Subway Writers’ (2011) captures passengers poised in the act of writing as they make their journey through the city. In her photos, the writer becomes an object of intrigue, an individual absorbed in a private interior world set against perhaps one of the densest backdrops in the city. Continuing the narrative strand, Sophie Calle’s project ‘The Bronx’ (1980) paints an intimate portrait of city dwellers through a series of photographs and personal accounts by the artist. The project chronicles a number of purposeful, yet spontaneous encounters with strangers who escorted the artist to a place of their choosing within the city. The resulting works are a manifestation of an individual’s private connection to a place: nostalgic, moving, and intensely personal in equal measure.
Other work on display trains its focus on the spectator in the city. John Baldessari’s ‘Crowds With Shape of Reason Missing, Example 1 – 6’ (2012) calls attention directly to the phenomenon of the crowd by completely erasing the object of attention. Meanwhile, Gillian Wearing’s ‘Dancing in Peckham’ (1994) invites the viewer to acknowledge and participate in the group response by putting the subject of their attention front and centre; the artist herself, dancing alone in silence in the middle of a busy shopping mall.
In Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s ‘Pendulum Polaroid’ (2000) the city is quite literally broken up in to pieces. These pictures, fragments of regular journeys made by the artist, construct a city in constant flux; a place defined by transition and change, appearing to the viewer through snatches of experience. Several works on display by Catherine Yass also serve to deconstruct the city. Highlighting the stresses of the modern metropolis through physical aspects of its decay, her work blurs the boundaries between the physical and psychological impact of the city.
Out of this urban flux a sense of personal decay and mental disturbance continues to emerge, the recurring shadow of urban psychosis. Work on display by Matthew Buckingham can be read as an expression of personal anguish, of unhappiness with the status quo. ‘Unzufrieden’ (2005) is quite literally a banner of dissatisfaction from a place of personal isolation in the city, a cry for help to passersby. Whilst ‘Narrative’ (2000) appears to be a cynical take on a recognisable storytelling format, one destined to repeat and perhaps never to resolve as promised.
But perhaps most directly engaged with the concept of urban psychosis, and equally the most difficult piece on display is an audiovisual collage by Luke Fowler. ‘What you see is where you’re at’ (2001) constructs a narrative from a collection of archive footage and audio clips featuring patients of R. D. Laing, whose unorthodox approach to psychosis during the 1960s was highly controversial. Laing was infamous for his ‘anti-psychiatry’ views, seeking to acknowledge the social and cultural impact of urban environments on mental stability, versus pure biology. The clips are as revelatory as they are disturbing, a deeply moving attempt to capture, visualise, and vocalise a dark battle at once highly personal but experienced by many in contemporary cities.