This is your Brain on Art

In Jill Suttie’s review of Elaine Fox’s new book, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,” on the Greater Good Science Center blog (July 30, 2012), she shares some fascinating insights for optimism and aesthetic experiences.

I often wonder, in the course of my Irrational Exuberance projects, whether objects attract or repel viewers, how, and why. How does presenting art about happiness and pleasure impact viewers? Suttie and Fox might lend a clue:

if optimists and pessimists are exposed to pleasurable stimuli, like a picture of a beautiful sunset or a box of chocolates, both will experience good feelings in the moment; but optimists can better sustain those feelings longer, because of asymmetric brain activity in which the left side is more active than the right.

Further, I’d suspected that optimism and pessimism might be related to the trust or skepticism that viewer enact when they focus their attention on challenging contemporary works that don’t look like art.

This difference in brain activity may help explain why optimists are more likely to take risks in approaching potentially rewarding experiences while pessimists, who have greater activity in the right side of the brain, tend to be more cautious.

Researchers have also found that people who are anxious or depressed—who also tend to be more pessimistic—have less connection between the prefrontal cortex of the brain (associated with cognitive activity) and the amygdala (associated with a feeling of fear). This means that pessimists are less able to control their fear response with thoughts, making them susceptible to emotional trauma from non-threatening situations and to difficulty recovering from setbacks in their lives.

What an insightful review and promising book. I’ve been feeling cautious and anxious—yes, pessimistic—lately, so this sounds like the perfect reading to add to the mix of references this summer.


Fun Facts

Last weekend, I enjoyed the rare honor of speaking publicly about my work twice in the same day.

First, I delivered a guest artist’s talk to a graduate seminar in San Francisco via Skype (a first for me). Emphasizing the vicissitudes of my life in the arts, I shared a factoid I learned from Creative Capital’s Professional Development workshop. I hope I remembered it correctly:

One positive response for every 13 to 15 applications for grants, residencies and awards is a pretty good average.

(Artists: It’s Spring deadline season. How are your applications coming along? Listings here.)

Being an artist can be variously trivial, serendipitous, laborious, or intentional. So I might have over-explained my art for these students, but it seems a worthy risk if it counter-balances, at least a bit, the obfuscation and unspoken rules about engaging the art world as an emerging artist.

While I wanted to convey the principle, nothing free—paying dues and investing sweat equity—I came away marveling at my good fortune to have benefitted from so many supportive organizations, foundations, and individuals… such as people who dream big, put in work, show up, share, and ask good questions—like the seminar students. The end of the Q&A came too soon.

Then, I participated in a group artists’ talk alongside other artists in Voices of Home at Jenkins Johnson Gallery. Independent curator Kalia Brooks did a great job moderating the panel, which included wave-splashing painting teachers and self-effacing younger artists. The artists have varied practices, terrain enough for an engaging discussion.

The audience, which exceeded the gallery’s seating capacity, was really great; thanks to everyone who attended.

The talk was organized in recognition of Black History Month, so with a panel of all (but one) Black artists, the subject of race and representation in the art field came up for discussion.

For emerging artists in San Francisco, New York City might still be seen as an art world center, with the center-of-the-center being Chelsea. For a panel of largely Black artists, speaking to a largely African American audience in a commercial gallery in Chelsea, geography was a non-issue, but access, via the lens of identity, was still a concern.

Some of the artists rejected the idea that they ought contend with identity in the studio, but no one disavowed as much when it came to engaging the professional field and the public realm.

Have you fantasized about de-activating your Facebook account? Me, too. Paul Martin’s definition of addiction—desire without pleasure—has characterized my recent experiences.

The headline,

“The Anti-Social Network: By helping other people look happy, Facebook is making us sad,”

of Libby Copeland’s article on Slate last year provides a clue to the problem.

Here is some irony about positive sentiments: I tried to keep my status updates positive, but willfully-upbeat presentations may actually be annoying, and en masse, distressing. I don’t think this undermines the value of optimism and positive enthusiasm in general, but speaks to Facebook’s perniciousness as a substitute for interaction and companionship.

So I’m taking a Facebook hiatus. It’s been four days, though it seems longer than that. Congratulations to me, I know. <Hallelujah hands.> [Sarcastic, I know. But I ought to share my un-Photoshopped sentiments, too, apparently. You have to start somewhere, buddies.]

One more fun fact, by way of Ritter Sport chocolates:

What Germans call “Halbbitter” (literally, “Half bitter”) is the same as what Americans call “semi-sweet.”

The half-full, half-empty optimism/pessimism riddle just got a chocolate-y analogue.

Art & Development

points of reference, starting with the rückenfigur

Yesterday with ABC, I re-visited Glenn Ligon: America, the beautiful mid-career survey at the Whitney. It’s a stellar show, and I experienced anew this installation:

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source:

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source:

The word rückenfigur refers to portraits with figures looking at a landscape with one’s back to the viewer, as in the famous Caspar David Friedrich painting below. Rückenfigur is one of Ligon’s  masterful America neons, and it’s an elegant use of text, in title and in form. Ligon’s neon features individually-reversed letters; the word is clearly “America” at first glance, but it is not backwards, yet individual letters, like the “R” and “C,” clearly are. This causes an experience of uncertainty, of not comprehending what is plain before you, similar to trying to grasp the vast culture of the US.

Additionally, the sign is painted black on the back side; viewers see no soft glow on the wall, just hard linear neon, an effect that is extremely rare among this nearly ubiquitous type of sign. Listen to the audio guide that accompanies this work.

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source:

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source:

The rückenfigur also appears in Ligon’s self-portraits, installed as a series of five photographs rendered in screenprint on canvas. Of the five images, four are of the back of the artist’s head.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist  ©Glenn Ligon. Source:

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist ©Glenn Ligon. Source:

ABC—always an inquisitive and passionate interlocutor—and I discussed these images. She guessed that they were gestures of turning towards a landscape of sorts. I surmised that the artist was giving us his back, refusing to be identified, pinned down, or boxed in, or perhaps, embracing or representing the anonymity or blankness of social perceptions. They seemed to be about ambivalence, or making the viewer project his or her own assumptions onto the image to me.

Ligon is an artist of remarkable subtlety; the exhibition tells a compelling story about an artist who expresses pointed political stances through others’ language. The show is gorgeously paced and installed; I even became fond of the Marcel Breuer-designed galleries, to which I was indifferent to (though I’ve always loved the lobby, with its grid of chandeliers with half-silvered bulbs). America continues through June 5 at the Whitney, then travels to LACMA in the fall of 2011 and to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in early 2012. Mark your calendars.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

In thinking about the rückenfigur, and the negation of turning one’s back, I recalled the Claude glass, or black mirror, which I’ve blogged about before. The Claude glass is a pocket mirror of black glass that Romantic painters would use to restrict the tonal range of the landscape. To use the mirror, painters would turn their backs to the landscape and reflect the landscape in the glass. They’d paint the reflection, not the actual landscape.

Thanks to Google Images, I came across a series of beautiful photographs of a Claude glass in action by Carter Seddon. The site is under construction, but if these photos are any indication, I’d advise: Get it together; the pictures are good.

 Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror” single comes to mind. View the arcane and lovely filmic video on YouTube.

Detail, untitled, 2008, site-specific window intervention: window film, gels, acetate

Late one night in 2008, I was installing Activist Imagination at Kearny Street Workshop. One of my projects required tinting a window with black film. After nightfall it was much easier to see my reflection than it was to see what I was doing. The Arcade Fire single came on, and my mood surged; I was overjoyed by the coincidence.

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable).

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable).

Memory and time…. Earlier today, I participated in the artist’s talk for The Black Portrait at Rush Arts Gallery in NYC. It’s an exhibition to which I contributed mirrorsblackportrait, a kinetic sculpture of two mirrors, one painted black on top, one painted black on bottom. During the talk, I mentioned the Claude glass, and the idea that suppressing perceptions might have the paradoxical effect of opening up a space for viewer’s experiences. Then, I had the good fortune of receiving kind and thoughtful feedback from other artists in the show. KO told me that as the sculpture turned, his mind stitched the memory of the lower reflection with the memory of the upper reflection. SS added that in revisiting a memory, it becomes strengthened. In this sense the work is also about time and recognition.

KO also mentioned a fascinating project of his involving flea markets, and how the lives of objects often outlast the lives of their owners. This reminded my of my favorite Daniel Spöerri quote, which is just as fresh and relevant to my practice now, as it was when I first read it five years ago:

We are all fetishists snared by the object…. The object is the vehicle of the affections… until they reach the flea markets of the world, where these objects continually pile up stripped of their magic and cut off from the memory of their history… All that remains of these preserves is the container the artists made for the time, the “can” the preserves came in…. The container will never interest me as much as the contained, but where would I pour my wine without a glass?—and it is in between these two poles of the inseparability of the two that my anxiety of finding a definite solution will oscillate, which could be interpreted positively as the desire for instability and change.

—Daniel Spoerri, The Mythological Travels, 1970.

To this, SS added her memories of going to the racetrack as a child. She recalls it as a site populated by outsiders, rife with belief in luck, superstitions and talismans. The idea of imbuing an object with magic or meaning carries over in to so much of what artists aspire to do.

Another attempt to refine a sensibility: CV recently pointed out that my work is not about optimism and pessimism per se, but that it’s about the moment of discovery. I think she meant that my work offers experiences that elicit responses, which highlight optimistic or pessimistic tendencies.

As my work has shifted towards happiness and sentiment, I’ve encountered skepticism—disbelief of my earnestness. And as a viewer, I am not always sympathetic to earnest works of art. Social practice gardening, for example, can seem a bit cutesy, and not very thought-provoking to me. So how could I expect or encourage viewers to take my earnestness at face value, and to not assume that sincerity is antipathetic towards criticality?

I recently posed two questions, and received two very good responses from friends. As I interpret it, AV answered in terms of what an artist or his/her work of art should exhibit to a viewer.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AV: Genuine commitment.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AV: Naive idealism.

AR answered with what a viewer should bring to the work of art.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AR: Courage.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AR: Fear.

Demonstrating genuine commitment in my inquiry seems like a more tangible goal than cultivating courage in viewers.

Whimsy, earnestness, sentiment and insignificance… On a somewhat related note, I recently came across Charlotte Taylor’s 2005 article in Frieze about whimsy. The article counterposes The Believer‘s intellectual whimsy against n+1. In the process, Taylor identified these observations:

…whimsy triumphs when the import of the apparently insignificant and the relevance of the random are discovered.

Like camp, intellectual whimsy is not best understood as ironic: it places a premium on unabashed sincerity while at the same time treading a fine line of self-parody. It often signals this self-parody by appropriating typographical and design conventions from the past… The provocative or unexpected becomes the precious….

For the editors of n+1 whimsy signals a dismaying lack of conviction and encourages the conspicuous squandering of energy on trivialities rather than issues of substance….

Wes Anderson’s films are whimsical because their unexpected juxtapositions are imbued with sentimental significance.

…whimsy values the ability to appreciate the aesthetic harmony possible among myriad incongruent objects. It draws attention to the act of perception and the sensibility of the perceiver. This is why intellectual whimsy can readily become grating—it invites you to be pleased by the innovations of another person’s taste.

Ironically, the style of these Points of Reference posts is to draw connections between seemingly incongruous ideas. Though I’m still sorting them out, I believe these points relate and that finding their similarities can be a productive exercise to advance my studio practice. I’ll leave you with a paraphrased quote, from today’s NYT video of friends pitching in to save one Alabama man’s house from flooding. As they built levees against a rising river, a friend expressed, without contradiction, his simultaneous feelings of futility and determination:

It may seem like a wasted effort. But it would not be for lack of effort.

Art & Development, Community, Research

Works in Progress

Christine Wong Yap Work-in-progress view of Cloud II (Aura / Good Thoughts) 2011 mixed media installation: Glitter foil on board, 3-D illusion plastic, fun fur yarn, thread, elastic, hula hoops, beads dimensions vary

Christine Wong Yap, Work-in-progress view of Cloud II (Aura / Good Thoughts), 2011, mixed media installation.

I’ve been working on a new cutout text installation for a forthcoming group exhibition. It will be an optimistic, exhuberant update to my copper and elastic installation, Cloud.

Cloud (installation view), 2006, copper, rope, elastic, monofilament, 7 x 6 feet / 2.1 x 1.8 m

Cloud (installation view), 2006, copper, rope, elastic, monofilament, 7 x 6 feet / 2.1 x 1.8 m

The original installation was comprised of mundane, mindless texts, such as “hey, it’s me, are you busy now?” The new iteration uses spoken, written and emailed texts from my life that express happiness, gratitude, or empathy. It will be made of colorful materials like 3D illusion plastic and glitter foil.

Your wish has come true

Work-in-progress view of hand-cut glitter foil on board. Text: “Your wish has come true.”

February 28 – April 1, 2011
Portraiture: Inside Out
Opening Reception: Thursday, March 3, 5—9pm
An exhibition of contemporary portraiture. Curated by Ruth Ballester, Whitney Fehl and Lauren Thompson, Graduate Students in the Museum Professions Program.

Artists: Sarah Bliss, Dominic Guarnaschelli, Gwen Hardie, Jenny Hyde, Pat Lay, Greg Leshé, So Yoon Lym, Ryan Roa, Steve Rossi, Jesse Eric Schmidt, Travis LeRoy Southworth, Tanja Targersen, Peter Whittenberger, Christine Wong Yap, Raphael Zollinger

Opening Reception: Thursday, March 3, 5–9pm
Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ
Gallery hours: Monday–Friday, 10:30am–4:30pm

Also in the exhibition, by chance, are two members of the collective, Brolab, who I met through volunteering for the Art in Odd Places festival, and whose work I enthused about, last fall.

Random & Rad:

I did a Google image search for “attitude” and this is what came up:

Google image search results for Attitude

I love the mix of results! Trashy, jokey mottos alongside sincere (if simplistic) mantras for optimism. Just the first row is brilliant: unapologetic crudeness underscored by a sassy type treatment, self-help clichés (positive thinking, magic, happy face), motivational sports maxims, more unapologetic crudeness plus sexual egomania, and a party-goer’s mantra. It sort of exemplifies American ignominy as well as the desire for inspiration and the futility of oversimplified positive thinking. It presents lowbrow poles of irony and sincerity.


Biology, Trust and Skepticism

Both trust and distrust, it now seems, are influenced by hormones that can induce people to ratchet their feeling of trust up or down.
The trust side of the equation is mediated by a brain hormone known as oxytocin. A soft touch or caress will send a pulse of oxytocin into a person’s bloodstream….
There needs to be an antidote to oxytocin that makes a person keep those warm, fuzzy feelings suppressed in the appropriate circumstances….
Researchers at Utrecht University in Holland now report that they have identified this antidote: it is testosterone….
“Testosterone decreases interpersonal trust and in an apparently adaptive manner,” the researchers conclude. (Nicolas Wade, “She Doesn’t Trust You? Blame the Testosterone,”, June 7, 2010)


Yes No Language

In “No,” Ben Zimmer’s latest contribution to his On Language column (, March 15, 2010), yes and no are examined through the lens of Congressional discourse and pop culture. Zimmer lists some associations:

yes no, agreement opposition, positivity negativity, acceptance denial, getting to yes, party of no

From my personal collection, here are a few greatest hits of yes and no memorabilia:

A (lost) sticker bearing the phrase, “The Land of Yes.” It was produced by Trillium Press, which is now SF Electric Works. The motto conveyed a commitment to helping artists realize their projects.

Ugo Rodinone’s “Hell Yes!” architectural signage for the New Museum. Rounded text + rainbow stripes + in an arc = unabashed enthusiasm.

My first word was “no”—a troubling fact for an aspiring optimist—but it turns out, I’m not alone. Zimmer informs:

…the power of no is even more primal, perhaps because it is so often among the first words that English speakers learn as children.

Zimmer also discusses yes and no in terms of the “up/down” vote, an orientational metaphor with its own set of associations, as examined by linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (U. of Chicago Press, 1980):

happy sad and other dyads

Some of these orientational metaphors cohere. For example, a person with high status might expect being in positions of control more often. Good, virtue and life/health are obviously linked. But it would be a mistake to assume that all of the concepts associated with up or down are necessarily coherent. Lakoff and Johnson describe a discrepancy between two metaphors associated with up and down, unknown (up) and known (down) does not cohere with finished (up, as in “the crate’s buttoned up” or “the shoot’s wrapped up”) and unfinished (down).

To this I might add:

transcendent mundane, concept material, ephemeral quotidian

Visual Thesaurus

I love this thesaurus for the visually inclined. The concept map is a brilliant way to group similar meanings and identify specific words.

Art & Development

optimism and pessimism

I am opposed to false dichotomies (who isn’t), and there are times when I think artists’ embrace of ambiguity is a bit wishy-washy (obsessions man v. nature, nature v. technology, interstitial spaces, etc), but I do think optimism and pessimism is a rich terrain, and much more than a mere duality.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald

Art & Development

Art and Recession: Outlooks

Following Holland Cotter’s “The Boom is Over. Long Live Art!” (, February 12, 2009), several more articles on the intersection of art and recession have cropped up.

Overly-optimistic authors suggest that a recession can be good for art and creativity.

In “Creative buds can bloom in a recession,” (Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 2009), Marcus Westbury reiterates one of Cotter’s vague predictions:

[In a recession, artists] can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again. (Cotter)

Higher levels of unemployment can mean that talent has more time to experiment and innovate… (Westbury)

I don’t know how other people feel about being unemployed, but I find being on a tight budget oppressive, not liberating. While I might have once romanticized Dumpster-diving as a rejection of over-consumption in my youth, I no longer idealize the “poetry of poverty” (author Marlon James on Studio 360), or subsidizing my practice with credit card debt.

So it grates, because when unemployment figures for the general public rise, politicians, the media and the public are obsessed with the stress, risk and instability. But these writers suggest that artists enjoy a magical, innate virtue that transforms penury into dreamy studio lives, with few consequences — financial, professional or personal — to pay.

In “Getting creative to survive” (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2009), Melanie Cox McCluskey wrote about creative agencies:

Being inventive comes in handy in a bad economy, and creative people are finding solutions to sluggish times. They are taking on every project that comes along.

Wrong! For a creative agency to accept every job that comes through the door — even if the client or project is a bad fit for the agency — is not being creative. It’s being desperate and financially conservative.

I think these authors are overestimating the power of creative traits like flexibility and spontaneity. As Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd explain in “The Time Paradox” (Rider, 2008), these traits are helpful in art-making, but they are present-oriented. And too much present-orientation can lead to imbalance and unhappiness:

In a society that is politically and economically unstable, you cannot predict the future from the vantage of the present…. Political and economic instability also causes instability within families…. The less people can rely on the promises of government, institutions, and families, the more they eschew the future and focus on the present, creating a world of yes and no, black and white, is and is not, rather than one filled with maybes, contingencies, and probabilities.

Zimbardo and Boyd advocate a more balanced time-perspective, which includes healthy past- and future-orientation. Planning for the future is related to hope, ambition, health, well-being and a sense of personal efficacy.

I think these realist writers, who argue that artist’s already-fragile positions become more vulnerable in a recession, would agree.

Charles Fleming, “For artists, the picture is bleak.” Los Angeles Times. March 10, 2009.

Matthew Shaer. “Artists in survival mode as market crumbles.” Christian Science Monitor. March 13, 2009.

Despite their optimism, it seems like Cotter, Westbury and McClusky believe that artists belong at society’s margins, where they can happily make work in spite of dire economic circumstances.

I differ.

Instead of encouraging artists to espouse scarcity and self-sacrifice from the margins, I’d rather see artists expressing leadership and generosity from the center. Professionalizing and de-marginalizing artists inspires good ethics, values, and sense of agency.