How to view art: A therapeutic approach

There’s a distinct pleasure to be found in the arrangements of objects, colours, textures, ideas, and space. This is nothing new – Kettle’s Yard is an iconic example of how arrangements and collections of paraphernalia serve for positive or helpful mental functions.

A few years ago I went to a Mona Hatoum exhibition at the Tate Modern.

I wrote a lot in my notebook. At the time I was in the midst of an acute emotional (not mental illness related, I might add) crisis and was finding solace in nothing, but this exhibition – particularly its sculptural installations – offered me some kind of mental balm.

Up until the time that I saw this exhibition I had not considered the restorative experience that can be the viewing of other peoples’ art. I had only thought one’s own art-making activities could be truly emotionally potent. This assumption was largely fueled, I am certain, by having been to art school and been amongst the over-saturated gallery scene that is so competitive, judgmental and almost divorced from art as a vehicle for emotion. The infrastructure and dynamics of a competitive art world require market and/or trend-led production, rather than emotive creativity.

So, going into Mona Hatoum’s exhibition I had not expected to ‘feel’ in response to artwork – i’d been taught to intellectualise creativity. It was totally (it still resonates and gives me shivers how good this surprise felt!) new for me to react with pure feeling, devoid of rational thought, in response to artwork. It was very visceral, actually.

I tried at the time to then rationalise the experience, ironically. Here is what I wrote:

Notes at the Mona Hatoum show – the human psyche reflected in sculpture.

‘”I’m in the midst of some really challenging personal emotions. Desperate to turn off all thinking and own emotions and just experience somebody else’s mind in an immediate and obvious and simple way.”

This was me last week, and it was very disconcerting.
The reason I just divulged my mental state will hopefully become clear soon.

I arrived at the Tate Modern last Friday evening upset and totally overwhelmed. This was different to my usual anxiety and panic disorder issues. New stuff was going on in my head. Really weird stuff. Maybe an identity crisis of some sort – I’d had my personal emotional safety violated a few weeks before in a way i’d not expected would ever happen.

I waited outside the exhibition for a bit, unable to consider the possibility of putting my mind to rest and calming down. I felt like there were a million little birds attacking my head from the inside. Then I just decided to go for it and went into the Mona Hatoum exhibition.

Greeting me was a large, slate-grey, textured cube. Immediately and absolutely I felt calmed and curious. 

For once I wasn’t trying to intellectualise the artwork or analyse it politically. The formal presence of the sculpture (entitled ‘Socle du Monde’) miraculously disengaged my cerebral consciousness and exhilarated my physical body. I could feel my skin reacting to the way the sculpture looked and loomed in the white room. Instant relief at being able to experience something of reality without using the interpretive powers of my psyche.

It felt miraculous as I say, but I then went to read the quote that was printed on the wall across from the sculpture. I didn’t write it down but it was short quote from the artist stating that her sculptures are intended to engage the audience with their form, and from that then perhaps incite an emotional connection and perception of it. So she had planned exactly what I had felt!
Through a phenomenological effect Mona Hatoum had provoked mental engagement, and in my case also disengagement from my own mind and into pushed it/me a wider context of experience. Specifically I mean that the physical and textural existence of the sculpture had provoked a reaction in my mind and body.

I had never considered, or rather I had never believed, that the experiencing of another person’s artwork could be so therapeutic and on such a visceral level.

I want to try to explain my reactions to Mona Hatoum’s work, as I moved throuh the exhibition.

           ‘Light Sentence’ is a sculptural installation made of wire cages. A single bulb hangs low to the floor within a space in the middle of the cages, and moves slightly, throwing a shifting, dancing light across the walls, floor and ceiling and also onto the viewers.  The sense of becoming aware of your own body when in this installation has a simple grounding effect on your existence – as just a person in a world of other people. Somehow this realisation has an ability to quieten whatever preoccupations and worries I am having.

‘Light Sentence’ by Mona Hatoum. (image source:

In visiting this exhibition I was very quickly learning how useful it is to be connected to the sensations your own skin and your own occupation of the space picks up and interprets; temperatures, textures, sizes, light and dark etc. All of these are grounding for the mind when connected with. I suppose I already knew this passively, from experiences such as enjoying getting soaked in the rain, or swimming underwater, or covered in freezing mud in sports at school. I hadn’t however considered it to be beneficial to achieving emotional calm.

Arrangements and appearances of objects can reflect personal and interpersonal dynamics – and how those things may not always align…

    In one room towards the end of the exhibition was a metal sculpture titled ‘Quarters’, comprising several five-tiered bare bunk bed frames. Again this was a very calming vision on first impact; bare bed frames without evidence of specific inhabitation offered a universal symbol of some sort. There was no personality and that was a fresh feeling, not a cold one. The multiplicity of the bed image felt to me to be representative of the diverse dynamics within both inter-human relationships and within a single human’s relationship with themself.
‘Quarters’ by Mona Hatoum (image source: Hepworth Wakefield)

The beds were arranged in a cross shape around a central point. This spatial presence displayed, to me, the outward-acting yet deeply internalised structure of human minds. By this I mean that we are often defensive for self-preservation purposes but simultaneously trying so hard to be open, accommodating and present with ourselves and with those closest to us. It’s a recognisable internal dynamic, and it is both positive and negative. This installation let me think about that. The occupation of the room by that bed structure felt at once defensive and open. The non-linear arrangement seemed to exemplify the non-linear state of human relationships (with ourselves and with others) and personal progression; our relationships go back and forth between good and not so good.

This is very much like learning to live with a mental or emotional health problem; we view our malady as something that will either get better. At least this is what we hope. But linear progression through mental health struggles is entirely unrealistic – there will be troughs and peaks. Once we accept this however, and put in place a structure, or mechanism to cope with this, then we will hopefully become more resilient.

Going back to inter-human relationships, the idea that there were multiple beds to choose from, and specifically single beds, suggested that there were many places in which to choose to sleep on any given night. This seemed to qualify the human social need for both closeness with others yet also independence. It seemed to say that that polarity is at times actually ok.

I thought to myself that it was quite a nice layout for a long-term couple’s bedroom – two people might even choose sometimes to sleep in different beds at different levels rather than next to one another in neighbouring bunks, illustrating that although two people are involved in a relationship or friendship, they may be at different points at different times, requiring different things from the relationship and from themselves. Throughout this non-linear entity though, there is always an underlying feeling of support needed, something that the bed sculpture provided both physically and with the emotional space it occupied.

           So having felt at loss with a lot of current artwork, especially that which I have seen in London over the past three years or so, I was pleasantly re-invigorated.  My personal approach to art making is political and activist so I naturally lean towards other artists with a clear message that resonates in the context of everyday scenarios. I had not ever until last Friday considered that a huge contemporary artist could be both activist and visual psycholgist alongside being fit for consumption by the art-world itself. Thank you Mona Hatoum for helping me out there and for affirming that art can be useful on any level in any setting. I realise that I experienced her artwork at a time when I really needed it, but who’s to say that isn’t happening daily, across the world, for many people who need a little respite.”

Respite in the viewing of art.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of finding respite in viewing others’ creations recently, more and more, as I re-acquaint myself in more depth with the hills I grew up on, and with the soil that i’m growing my food in. I think i’ve been considering this more because i’m learning to enjoy moving slowly, and that gives me more time to look, see and feel.

Moving to London in 2009 and living in a city for over seven years was absolutely necessary – I needed to be surrounded by youthful energy, urgency and self-expression and to have some operational and cultural freedom from rural life. But being back in Herefordshire is helping, slowly, with my mental stability. I need now to chill, and go slowly, and spend time look and learning from a small handful of things in my life – like growing veg, using my body properly, being a better listener, calming my anger, stopping smoking and drinking etc. I couldn’t handle the overwhelm that comes with thousands of people being amazing all in my face and giving me too much to explore and be excited about or resentful of. So here I am, being a little 27 year old snail digging in the garden, feeling better.


I want to consider for a second the importance of pace as a means to see and feel our surroundings, because I had a great text conversation with my boss today about this.

I work in a shop called ‘The Odd Shop’ in Ledbury – full of found and handmade things, hidden up an alleyway, spread across rickety rooms and courtyards in an old building on the High Street. I really enjoy arranging all the amazing trinkets and little works of art that locals bring in to sell, including my boss’s beautiful illustrated handmade books. She’s written a really sincere, gently, joyous picture booked called ‘The Tale of The Blue Tiger’ about a tiger who is stuck in a zoo and escapes to explore the dark night and eventually finds other tigers, who make him feel like he finally has friends. It just makes me cry and smile every time. When I told her this she reflected that so few people ever really know how to spend time looking and feeling when they view artworks. We agreed that when people really do spend that time, (and we do occasionally see it in The Odd Shop) peoples’ imaginations just go to a whole other place and they gain so much more. They don’t just judge an artwork based on the value of its the media, the size of it or the photorealism of it.

One of our favourite customers at The Odd Shop, who is a writer and artist from Ledbury, is Philip Weaver. He and I often talk about how lots of people value volume and size more than anything. He paints teeny little paintings of all his ex girlfriends and a few other things besides. My favourite painting of his is ‘The TV at the end of the world’ – a tiny block of wood that he’s painted with a TV with rainbow snow emanating from it. For various reasons (partly because I have made lots of my own art about cinemas/the cinematic and soap operas as iconic culture) it just fills me with total joy and makes me feel smug and like I have a friend! Philip Weaver knows how to look – in his last exhibition he displayed a tiny painting underneath the table, so people had to crawl on the floor. They were rewarded with Haribo and he put fairy lights inside the Haribo for extra effect. The humour in this is also so reassuring!

Julie’s book – you’ll just have to go into The Odd Shop and see it to get the full effect!

Learning to see and feel.

I think the ability to gain a transcendent experience from viewing art depends on the ability of the viewers to feel and see – in their mind’s eye as much as visually.

This ability does, I think, need to be learned. It involves taking time to mentally explore the things you are sensing around you. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it takes a while. You kind of have to give yourself some time with the artworks offer a hint of a promise to you, even when you don’t know what it is they’ll do for you yet.

A few months ago I saw a monochrome, abstract Georgia O’Keefe painting in Oxford, and didn’t think I liked it. But I knew it had something hidden in it – a brief, isolated narrative of feeling that was hidden somewhere in the form within the painting. I stood staring at it for seven or eight minutes, and then I realised it reflected the moment where I overcome a panic attack before it really takes hold.

Finding structure inside your own pain by having it reflected by an arrangement or series of objects, colours, surfaces and sounds can be reassuring, and very grounding.

The same can absolutely be said for joy and sincerity – when you see someone else exploring and feeling joy and sincerity in the same way you do, like when I read my boss Julie’s book ‘The Tale of The Blue Tiger’, that has a ripple effect. It makes you feel your own feelings, and feel less alone in the knowledge that others have the same thoughts you do.

And that all come from learning to look, and feel when you look, without agenda.

The view from my bed – I arranged these fabrics and pieces of twine and twig especially – they make me feel sane. Not sure why.

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