A Review of All In: The Mind at House of Vans, London
Running at the House of Vans for ten days in August, all in: the mind is a mindful group show, characterised by works, which are delicate explorations of the diverse personal manifestations of mental health. An intimate exhibition, a huge variety of works are on display in this carefully curated space. Modern and stylish in feel, the location under Waterloo’s railway arches emphasises the alternative nature of the show - confronting subjects of mental health in a space quite far removed from the white cube gallery space. An eclectic location, it is a safe space away from the hustle and bustle of Waterloo Road. Each of the artists in this show have used their personal struggles or encounters with mental health as the starting point for their creative originality - but not in a twee, ‘genius’ way. These works are confrontational, reflective, meaningful - intended to inspire thoughtfulness and conversation about a topic which still carries such taboos.
Curated by Bryony Stone, deputy editor of It’s Nice That and the brains behind IRL creative platform all:in, the show is high impact and eclectic. All proceeds from the exhibition, which was free entry but encouraged donations, go to mental health charity Mind.
Much of the works in the show focus on elements of life drawn from everyday realities. The artists use different visual media with which to express their unique experiences and interpretations of normality and, on occasion, abnormality, and the experiences of dealing with mental health issues. Suzannah Pettigrew’s I.C.U, a video created using MRI scans of her brain, is at once profoundly intimate and alien. The title is a play on words - the initials ‘ICU’ referring to both an acronym for a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, or text language speak for the phrase ‘I see you.’ The resulting work is a shrewd mix of personal imagery, that of using herself as the starting point of the work, contrasted with the technical aspect of medical technology. The viewer almost begins to question the legitimacy of the human brain, its imperfections contrasted with the impersonal and yet supposedly faultless robotics of technology. The work marks, and in a sense commemorates, a period in the artist’s life which led her to start cognitive behavioural therapy.
A thoroughly different work by Margot Bowman makes explicit how mental health can manifest in unexpected ways, in an animated film, Sommer of Hate, which is a commentary on how political events can affect, and even ruin, our sex lives. James Massiah’s evocative digital poetry piece, Functioning, explores the use of medical and recreational drugs ‘as a means through which to function, in what may generally be perceived as, “normally”.’ The dangers and benefits of such a practice are evoked through simple and playful linguistics.
Another insightful work, by Joey Yu, an expressive mixed media on canvas work entitled Crowd, expresses the challenging nature of living in a metropolis like London. Feelings of loneliness can be so much more apparent when surrounded by people, the artist explains in an accompanying short poem: ‘Crowd is a manifestation of the city. / the throng, and the mass / of too many voices / but no one really listening.’ These words are meaningful and will surely resonate with many a viewer.
One particularly eye-catching and incisive work is A Sai Ta’s Takeaway (2017), an installation reaching from ceiling to floor, consisting of wire hangers and plain white t-shirts that have puzzles and anagrams of the word ‘MIND’ worked over the designer labels inside. The fashion designer, headhunted by none other than Kanye West in his first year at Central Saint Martins, creates a bold and experimental piece, drawing on the manipulation of textiles and his background in fashion in order to ‘disrupt luxury codes.’
With the word ‘MIND’ a reference to the charity benefitted by this exhibition, viewers were welcome to take away a t-shirt and make a donation. The resulting work, therefore, in its transient nature, creates a shared dialogue between the artist, the art, and its viewer - and, in a more profound and deeper sense than this, encourages a dialogue about mental health.
One work I personally felt made a significant was Holly Blakey and Mica Levi’s Wrath (2016), a film on the subject of interpretive dance. Although the struggle that inspired the film is unnamed and thus unknown, the practice of movement is a universal language that is relatable, and can be interpreted, whatever the inspiration. In a claustrophobic and unnerving visual and audio experience, the dancer begins with a series of wild and tormented movements which convey feelings of unexpected (and unchoreographed) trauma. A repetitive guitar soundtrack adds to the uncomfortable atmosphere. Gradually, though, her movements become wilder and freer, and the viewer is perhaps slightly comforted by the sense that the dancer has been able to defeat her demons.
This exhibition promotes the artistic and creative practice as a meaningful space in which mental health can be discussed, made manifest, and confronted. Whilst some of the works do provoke a sense of discomfort (or, at least, they did for me), this is part of the point of the show - mental health is not always a pleasant subject. Many of the works in this show are beautiful for their realism and potential lack of beauty - their creativity in itself a sort of triumph over whatever unseen ugliness that may have inspired them. Tim Noble’s Boy being sick on bird, for example, makes visually manifest the fact that the discussions opened up by explorations of mental health can be difficult and uncomfortable - but that this is exactly why it should be explored.
There is an almost comforting sense of unity in the disparity between each work on display - a diverse range of pieces encompassing fine art, fashion, music, sculpture, video, poetry, and audio - that reassures the viewer that manifestations of mental health are bizarre, unexpected, unique, and most importantly, not abnormal. It is a welcoming show, certainly with something for everyone. And everything is relatable, the meaning of each artwork not so personal to each creator that it excludes its viewer. Nothing is sanitised or watered down, here: each artist freely expressing their individual truths. But not every work provokes an uncomfortable reaction - rather, the emphasis is on encouraging thoughtfulness and openness.
There are even two sunbeds at the end of the exhibition, inviting relaxation whilst listening to a radio interview about the issue of ‘welfare within the creative communities.’ A collaborative work by Akinola Davies JR, I Know Nothing (2016), directly deals with opening up the dialogue surrounding mental health. Speakers, including DJ Radi Radi and fellow artist in the show Suzannah Pettigrew, talk about their own personal experiences of pressure and anxiety, and of course the rising issue of the role of social media in both masking and provoking issues associated with mental health - the constructed idyll having a contrastingly damaging effect.
All in all, this is an encouragingly reflective exhibition. It both teaches and reassures its viewers that mental health knows no boundaries - social, racial, gender, sexual, political, and so on. In the show, and in a broader sense with her ‘all in:’ platform, Bryony Stone aims to ‘activate social change on a community level.’ Art as a tool or a vehicle with which to explore mental health - think of Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Yayoi Kusama, and the entire genre of Outsider Art, to name but a few examples - is not a new concept. As such, however, it is a particularly impactful genre with which to convey and achieve the aim of normalising mental health, and the visual legacy and effect of each work in this show on an individual level and as part of the exhibition is, I feel, incredibly insightful.
Written by Georgia Messervy, Contributor to Arteviste.