Self-reference, visual arts and mental health: synergies and contemporary encounters

BSA_folletoEste jueves a las 18:20, en el Caixaforum de Barcelona, haré la Conferencia Inaugural del congreso de verano del grupo de estudio BSA Auto/Biography Study Group (The British Sociological Association) , del cual hace algunos años que soy miembro.

Esta conferencia presentará los resultados de la investigación sobre la relación de las artes visuales, la autorreferencialidad y el Alzheimer iniciada con la colaboración del Departament de Cultura de la Generalitat de Catalunya, al que doy mi más sincero agradecimiento por la beca que me dieron el año pasado (octubre 2012).

El congreso, que tendrá lugar del 11 al 13 de julio en Barcelona (por primera vez fuera de Inglaterra), lleva por título: “Picturing the self and Identity: Images of Auto/biography“.

Mi conferencia será en inglés y abierta al público… por si alguien quiere venir. Y después, a las 19:20 el videoartista Ferran Gassiot hará una breve presentación del proyecto: LABORATORI DE VIDEOART. projecte de video creació per a persones amb trastorns de salut mental

Aquí os dejo el título y el resumen (en inglés) del tema de mi intervención:

“Self-reference, visual arts and mental health: synergies and contemporary encounters”


In recent years two very interesting inter-related phenomena have emerged that are worth examining. These are the loss of self-hood in connection with mental health and the use of art to promote and facilitate the continuation of an individual’s sense of self. These factors are particularly pertinent in cases of people suffering from dementia especially senile dementia and specifically Alzheimer’s disease.

On the one hand, the diagnosis of dementia of a family member has frequently spurred the individual, as well as their relatives to get the person to produce self-referent artworks. On the other, more organizations are using art as a medium to work with people affected by mental health problems.

Firstly, some types of mental illness plunge the relatives into a very complicated process that often ends with the loss of their own identity. It has been noted that artists diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, frequently employ their professional medium and use it as a personnel way to save the remnants of their identity and the latent memory of their loved ones (as Tatsumi Orimoto with his works “Art Mama” and Bread Man”, Albert Solé with his self-referential film “Bucarest, the lost memory” that won the Best Documentary Film Goya’s award 2009, or Alejandro Kirchuk that won a World Press Photo Award with the Photo Story of her Grandmother’s Alzheimer).

In particular the camera and the creation of self-referential work become a shelter and a sanctuary for their diminishing sense of selfhood in the midst of a tragic process of loss and sorrow.

Secondly, not only are individuals and their families employing art as a therapeutic process in these circumstances, but there are also interesting initiatives within the medical field in association with cultural organisations.

For example, the Unit of Dementia of the Hospital Virgin of the Arrixaca has been carrying out the project “Art and Culture as Therapy against the Alzheimer” since the 2008. They have obtained some interesting findings with regard to the relationship between emotions and the persistence of the memory. While the scientists work to understand if emotional responses can be a replacement for, or supplement to medication to help make memory more resistant, what seems certain is that families immersed in the day-to-day problems of mental health have found that self-referential art can be a conduit to the emotions of the ill person and therefore provides an important refuge to help to reconstruct ties, links and new connections with their identity and memory.

This paper will reflect upon and explore the possibility of synergies in relation to mental health, self-reference and the visual arts, with particular reference to the project carried out by CaixaForum Barcelona in 2010. This project involved people that suffer from a variety of mental disorders who are based at the Joia Mental Health Centre and three video-artists who directed a workshop on video self-portrait.

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