Art & Development

Happiness and pathology

My art has concerned happiness for the past two years, so I was fascinated to learn about a man who is forced to avoid joy and pleasure.

Neurologist Matt Frerking suffers from narcolepsy with catoplexy, a disease that results in momentarily losing the ability to move one’s muscles. In his case, the attacks are triggered by strong positive emotions. As Chris Higgins, the storyteller, narrated on This American Life (Episode #409, “Held Hostage”, originally aired June 4, 2010):

When Matt gets really happy—when he feels the warm fuzzy stuff—he becomes paralyzed by his emotions. Literally. Paralyzed.

Since I’m also interested in knickknacks and decorations, and how important and valuable they are, it was fascinating to hear this:

Frerking:

It can be a triggering condition just to discuss [looking at a wedding photo.]

Higgins:

At this moment, Matt is having an attack… Think about this: Matt had this attack while he was talking about a photo he has never seen. If just talking about a picture can cause this, imagine the other things Matt has to avoid.

It’s this kind of deep personal meaning invested in personal effects that fascinates me. How can an object can be invested with such strong memory, emotion and meaning, and yet be distinguished from art?

Higgins goes on to describe further negative impacts of the disease on Frerking’s life:

After living with this disease for four years, with being punished every time he experiences happiness, Matt’s adapted, though the way he has adapted is sad: He tries to enjoy things less. He told me he tries to think of himself as a robot, and not engage too emotionally. He’s told me he even has to be careful how he speaks, not to get too enthusiastic or worked up.

I find this tremendously tragic—and ironic, considering how much some of my past work advocated for modest pleasure. Certainly I was not talking about moderation in lieu of irrational exuberance, nor for the hostages of such diseases. If you are in good health, be grateful. It allows you the ability to feel as much happiness and express as much exuberance as you like.

Higgins ends on an optimistic note:

But it’s important to point out, even though Matt is being trained by his brain everyday not to feel these emotions, he still has them…. Although Matt tries to avoid happiness, it’s still part of his life. He’s proof that you can’t avoid happiness, it’ll still find you no matter what.

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Art & Development

Spring Cleaning, Part 2: Knickknackery

I’ve been increasingly enamored by the seduction/repulsion of some objects—how things, devoid of animate life, can have such an impact on people.

I find all of these things great in their own ways. The line between irony and sincerity can be blurry, though I aspire to avoid cynical irony.

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Research

Bainbridge, optimism and everyday materials

Whilst in the UK, I developed a taste for the Mancunian accent (“wot?” “ay!?” “is the shoPP open on tchoose-day, or does it close UR-leh”) and Frieze Magazine. The quality of design and content are high, and the content-to-ad-ratio is pleasant to navigate. Two articles in the May issue were particularly relevant for me.

“Future Conditional,” the editor’s note by Jonathan Griffin, makes a case for optimism— while images of dystopia and apocalypse are popular in contemporary art, we could use more images of

convincing alternatives…. A shared image of what is to come is not only healthy but also a form of prophesy; the fulfillment of the only future we can imagine, whether utopian or apocalyptic, is, on some level, deeply satisfying… [but] If a new future is to be developed, is it reasonable to ask art to contribute to its construction?

This seems to mirror Angela Davis’ argument that art must not only act in opposition, but imagine alternative futures.

In “Tales of Everyday Madness,” Griffin also profiles the British sculptor Eric Bainbridge, with this choice descriptions that seem relevant to my interest in the use of the readymade. Bainbridge “works with certain materials, forms and cultural references because he finds them ridiculous, repellant or pathetic,” and maybe these are attributes he sees in himself.

eric bainbridge
Eric Bainbridge at Middleborough Institute of Modern Art
Image Source: Frieze Magazine website, Archives Section, Issue 119, Nov/Dec 2008, Eric Bainbridge review.

In fact, cheap materials “elicit a kind of sympathy, an identification with the viewer that this is what we are.” I was bemused to hear that when Bainbridge showed his work in New York in the 1980s, he felt “utterly deflated at how English it looked, in its moderate scale, self-effacing humor, and domestic frames of reference.” But I would argue that this deflation constitutes not a detriment to the quality of his work, but an affirmation that his work was going against the grain of the spectacular, garish, market-friendly art of the time.

Bainbridge went on to assert that “the sublime could exist in the most unlikely of places…. Even the most exotic, fancy objects conceal the mundane and familiar, and conversely, that the things closest to home can occasionally reveal themselves to be strange, foreign and unknowable.”

This is not the most profound revelation in art—as it’s a fundamental principle behind Surrealism, as well as the contemporary folk-art-influenced naivete—but I love how Bainbridge articulates it. Rather than elevating the mundane, or valorize authenticity with aestheticized faux naif gestures, Bainbridge seems to complicate the act of declaring an object a work of art, and seems to be winking at viewers in the creation of what might be considered campy knickknackery.

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