Driven by the counter-cultural fervour of the 1960s and ’70s, alternative and new-age spiritualisms have served as substitute gospel to religious agnostics for decades. This hippie self-care, commoditized and widely disseminated today, is immediately recognizable by its distinct blend of signifiers: a hodgepodge of mistranslated references from ‘Eastern’ cultures, pseudo-scientific diet strictures, a jangle of rainsticks, experiential charms and wafts of nag champa. In the US, nearly every small town has a shop that specializes in such wares, and many of us who grew up there, outside of the coastal metropolises, found glimpses – in these ‘sundry stores’, headshops and organic groceries – of ‘alternative’ lifestyles and a sense of belonging otherwise unavailable out in the provinces.
Today, together with irregular or limited employment, a culture of chronic overworking is being increasingly normalized throughout North America and Europe, while – in the US especially – healthcare systems are underfunded, broken or non-existent. Self-care practices of healing and tending to one’s body and mind have evolved, for many, as necessary tactics to survive in political and economic environments that seem antagonistic to mental and physical well-being. The poet and writer Audre Lorde, who wrote through her experience of dying from cancer, asserted that self-care was a political act in the face of her oppression as a black lesbian. ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,’ she wrote in the 1988 essay collection A Burst of Light, ‘it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ The focus on the self in ‘self-care’ is thus not antithetical but integral to the political and community-oriented work of many artists and writers.
Still, to care for the self, with community in mind, yet in lieu of society’s support, is to enter a balancing act between individual and collective interests. Where is the line between self-preservation and individualistic self-indulgence? Working on uprooting the system is only possible as long as the individual is able to overcome her material conditions to show up for the protest – and, for many people, that is asking a lot. And, while self-care has gained traction as a practice aimed to support life so, too, has it inevitably become popularized in the form of listicles and think pieces – not least advertising campaigns for products such as health juices and yoga trousers that the beleaguered can buy, and buy into.
Today, artists such as Débora Delmar, Institute for New Feeling, Dafna Maimon, Helga Wretman and Lauryn Youden approach self-care tendencies both to criticize society’s failings and to imagine a positive way forward. Attuned to the commercialization of health and religion, their works flout the rationality of institutionalized systems by emphatically embracing the illogic of both pseudo-science and consumer culture. As ruminations on consumerism, fitness, food trends and alternative spiritualism, the practices of these artists often define art not by its objecthood but, rather, by the social and communal experience of self-organization: their activities are anchored in the possibilities of positive social regroupings – such as running a workout class, offering massages or zen gardening.
Berlin-based artist Helga Wretman began her ongoing project ‘Fitness for Artists’ – a performance that doubles as an exercise class – in 2010. Originally from Sweden, Wretman grew up fully aware of the possibilities (and limitations) of the body: firstly, through studying dance and, later, through her alternative career moonlighting as a stunt double for television and film. ‘Fitness for Artists’ was both a means of combining these two different fields as well as a way of helping her artist friends channel their ‘creativity’ by working out in a no-pressure environment. In venues such as museums, including Berlin’s Kunst-Werke in summer 2016, Wretman brings together creative types for fitness classes that mix martial arts and dance. Countering the image of the artist as studio- or laptop-bound, she has since run hundreds of these workshops. The idea that physical exercise can be art is still challenging to some, but Wretman’s project has its roots in the work of performance artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles and KwieKulik, whose daily rituals became their practices, and in the participatory activities of artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, as well as in historical antecedents such as Joseph Beuys’s notion of ‘social sculpture’.
Wretman’s ‘Fitness for Artists’ is now six years old and the project has evolved to reflect large-scale changes relating to today’s rampant culture of individualism. What began as an affirmative attempt at self-optimization through group fitness is today seen by Wretman as a more critical project. ‘There’s something problematic about our increasingly self-obsessed fitness and self-care culture,’ Wretman told me recently in Berlin. ‘We forget about communality and struggle to have empathy for others.’ Wretman’s work highlights that fitness culture can reinforce class insularity – which social groups have the free time to work out? – the perfect body being now perhaps the hardest status symbol to attain.
A similar contradiction plays out in the pursuit of healthy food, which is often at odds with global sustainability. The work of London-based artist Débora Delmar, who grew up south of Mexico City, references current signifiers of wellness, especially ‘lifestyle’ foods and other products, and how the value of these commodities changes when they are put into a global context. MINT, her project for the 9th Berlin Biennale in 2016, involved producing a line of ‘green juice’ and green-coloured foods for the Akademie der Künste cafeteria. (MINT is a finance-sector acronym for the emerging economies of countries primed for investment: Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.) In addition to collaborating with a local business, bJuice, to make her drinks, the artist also decorated the cafeteria with generic furniture that emulated Google-style corporate ‘healthy living’ canteens. Delmar pointed out to me that the developed world’s expectations for year-round availability of avocados and chia seeds puts unrealistic demands on the developing economies that export these products. Thus, the health of individuals who are blissfully unaware of seasonality and the economic law of supply and demand is at odds with the health of the planet and the labour of other, less privileged people. To take one extreme example: Michoacán, in western Mexico, is the largest supplier of avocados in the world. Production of the avocado, now a commodity more profitable than marijuana, has been taken over by local drug cartels, which has given rise to violence and extortion.¹ It is contradictions such as this in the ‘wellness industry’ that Delmar explores.
The work of collaborative artist group Institute for New Feeling (IfNF) takes myriad forms: a spa, ‘research clinic’ and a line of ‘wellness’ products. Its founders – Scott Andrew, Agnes Bolt and Nina Sarnelle – met each other while at graduate school and began working together in 2012. ‘We were interested in creating intimate experiences for people, in making physical work that you had to experience in the body,’ IfNF told me, explaining their interest in spas. ‘The spa provided a structure for holding together those interests. That framework has subsequently expanded to include many other types of work (like our sculptural wellness product line or our ongoing SEO campaign), and to explore what it means to institutionalize the identity of an artist.’ For their recent collaboration with artist and massage therapist Tatiana Vahan, produced by My Scion Gallery in Portland, the group invited people to enjoy a massage on a table set up in the middle of an almost-empty concrete basin containing drainage water from the highly polluted Los Angeles river. By forcing participants to tiptoe through the contaminated water to access the massage table, IfNF’s performance confronted viewers with the divergent interests of personal and environmental wellbeing.
The work of Berlin-based, Finnish-Israeli artist Dafna Maimon investigates the healing effects of play. Her recent collaboration with fellow artist Ethan Hayes-Chute comprised a three-day summer camp held at Kunstverein Braunschweig called ‘Camp So-Long’ (2016). As the title suggests, the camp focused on the act of saying goodbye, with all participants having recently experienced some form of personal loss, such as a divorce or separation. ‘Everything now is so temporary, we live project-to-project and rarely experience closure,’ says Maimon. The camp setting, which the artist describes as a series of emotional landscapes, expressed her interests in trauma, self-care and communal healing. The campers were given group exercises and specific tasks, such as taking daytime sleeps or, as Maimon describes them, ‘self-conscious naps’. In another exercise, participants had to bring a piece of ‘emotional trash’ and let go of it. This spring, building on her work at ‘Camp So-Long’, Maimon is organizing an ensemble, through an open call, to perform biweekly exercise sessions derived from gestalt therapy, psychodrama, spirit-animal excursions and performance rehearsals at Berlin’s Kunst-Werke. Maimon’s interest in structuring self-care combats today’s relative lack of institutionalized contexts for emotional labour and support. While she isn’t religious, she sees significance and beauty in spiritual rituals, such as Jewish seders, and is fascinated by how religious communities such as monasteries have defined structures for the unwieldy work of emotional reflection and care of the self.
Also in Berlin, Canada-born artist Lauryn Youden focuses on navigating Western medicine through the alterative therapies of North America’s west coast and arcane healing knowledge – from fermenting and brewing to tarot and astrology readings. Such knowledge is often shared by underground enthusiasts via Tumblr sites, workshops and zines, or communities such as artist Eliza Swann’s Golden Dome School in Los Angeles, which performs a yearly ritual play called ‘The Resurrection of Care’ (2016–ongoing). Youden won the Berlin Art Prize in 2016, and her work for the prize exhibition consisted of a multi-part installation of organic elements designed to soothe. Pours of Himalayan sea salt, resembling a zen garden, were arranged into patterns on the floor with metal rakes and salt-crystal lamps dotted the surface. A hammock, hand-dyed with redcurrants and weighed down with Berlin cobblestones, was strung between the salt mounds. Other elements included dried plants, clay, essential oils, pieces of lepidolite, burned Palo Santo wood, a sound piece featuring crystal ‘singing’ bowls, and framed handwritten jottings about a day’s activities, including Youden’s cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) homework. The artist acknowledges the bravely personal nature of this work and considers the entire installation to be an extension of the exercises given to her by her CBT therapist – including everything up to the actual production of the salt garden. Youden groups the actions that go into making her works – dyeing, arranging salts, participatory healing sessions – under the series title ‘Sacred Serpent Sessions’ (2016–ongoing).
On the West Coast, in cities like San Francisco, California and Vancouver (where Youden grew up), objects associated with alternative therapy, such as wind chimes and rainsticks, are fairly common yet looked down upon by many. Youden is interested in how ideas of wellness are attached to a ‘feminine’ space, specifically the history of witchcraft and its connection to proto-scientific herbs, brews and medicines. While the industries of medicine and mental health are now male-dominated, they both evolved in no small part through the persecution of women who, for centuries, embodied and, through oral traditions, disseminated medical knowledge. ‘Now that our Western system of medicine is dysfunctional, we’re looking back to centuries past, wondering how humans dealt with health and the body and if there’s any truth in that,’ Youden told me. While her work looks to early science to envision alternatives to our contemporary medical industry, the repetition of history – and particularly the rise of neo-fascism – seems to call for a reappraisal of these proto scientific beliefs that persist in our everyday lives. For these artists, caring for the self in the service of politics and community need not necessarily end in consumption or object making in the service of capitalism: their work proves that self-care can also be a practice, or simply a state of mind.
1) Joanna Blythman, ‘Can Hipsters Stomach the Unpalatable Truth About Avocado Toast?’, Guardian, 12 August 2016
First published in Issue 185