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Leigh de Vries It's OK to Feel Things

Renowned artist and mental health advocate Leigh de Vries brings a brand new project to Rotherham to inspire individual and collective reflection.

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Leigh de Vries’ Rotherham: A Relational Space comes to Clifton Park Museum from 30 November to 6 December 2021, with projections onto the Minster in Rotherham town centre on 26 November. De Vries' 2016 exhibition MyBrokenReality navigated the mind of a body dysmorphic disorder sufferer and reached an incredible 13 million people. This time she is turning her attention to the topic of anxiety. I chatted to her to hear more about this new work.

Hi Leigh. Nice to meet you. First things first, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the creative journey that’s led you to this point?

My work explores identity, the perception and representation of our mental environment and our inner emotional lives in contemporary culture. My public installations and events seek to creatively foster open dialogue around these issues, connecting art, artists and a diverse international public.

One key past achievement is my exhibition MyBrokenReality, staged in the UK and USA. The installation provided visitors with a multi-sensory experience, enabling them to navigate the mind of a body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) sufferer. The work aimed to create empathy and to challenge current stigmas that perceive BDD as imagined ugliness or self-indulgent.

The project surpassed my expectations, reaching an audience of 13 million (IRL, online and press) and generating crucial awareness in international press ranging from Dazed, Vice, LA Weekly, Sky News, Redbook Magazine, Huffington Post, Business Insider and BBC News to Italian Vogue.

I relocated back to Rotherham from Los Angeles to care for my aging parents. Since then, I’ve built a network in the city and facilitated the development of a new interdisciplinary, multi-site exhibition and public realm installation in collaboration with the Arts Council, major local partners and Rotherham residents.

This is the third phase of a long-term, Rotherham-based initiative. My objective is to develop and promote a common language for mental health and wellbeing using a bottom-up, relational, ethnographic method that leverages creativity. I hope to contribute to the active development of a cultural strategy in Rotherham, the community in which I live.

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What will you be exploring through Rotherham: A Relational Space?

If not now, when? We don’t talk about our anxiety or other taboo feelings as much as we should because we don’t think the moment is right or we aren’t encouraged to. Because certain moments or honest conversations do not occur as frequently as they should, emotions that need to be felt are suppressed. The most important question is: how do we create safe environments to uncover the complexity of our inner lives?

Rotherham: A Relational Space - in association with Arts Council England, Rotherham Council and MIND - will be a place for the local community to express their feelings around anxiety and related emotions, inspiring individual and collective reflection and interpersonal, intergenerational connection. The installation is in two parts: a projection onto the Minster in Rotherham Town Centre, plus a larger-than-life typographic installation at Clifton Park Museum, linking the city centre with the parklands.

By constructing rituals in public spaces that reveal the depth of our inner lives, I aim to activate Rotherham’s collective psyche through dialogue around anxiety and other under-verbalised feelings of emotional distress. Visitors can share their thoughts with each other, chat with trained individuals on-site or, as seen at The Rotherham Show in September, take part in the collective artwork by adding their responses, thoughts and feelings on anonymous notes.

I’ve seen you use the term ‘mental environmentalism’ when discussing your work. Can you tell us more about what this means?

If environmentalists acknowledged that industrial toxins harmed nature, mental environmentalists acknowledge that misinformation toxins pollute our minds.

Maybe it is time to remove the word “health” from “mental health” and the word “disorder” from “anxiety disorder.” If the construction of the present is primarily linguistic, then perhaps it is time for a new language, a new narrative. A language that doesn’t make us feel fundamentally flawed or broken, but one in which we can begin to understand, respect and honour our inner ecology. It’s the Mother Teresa approach - she wasn’t against war but she was for peace.

Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.

Bessel van der Kolk M.D

It’s likely that most people will experience some form of anxiety during their lives, and there has undoubtedly been a decrease in the stigma attached to talking about mental illness. With that in mind, why do you think people are still reluctant to open up about it?

Advances in neuroscience and understanding of how our bodies retain and respond to trauma are challenging the way we currently treat mental ‘health.’ Most of us have learned from our culture to be allergic to vulnerable feelings, especially emotions that have been classified as negative, which is why we try to push them down, or leave them in the past and move on in our lives. When they return, we search frantically for ways to distract from or numb them again. Or they overwhelm you to the point that you feel chronically sad, scared or alone. As long as you suppress these emotions, you are fundamentally at war with yourself.

I don’t think there are enough safe spaces being created for people to open up about what is going on for them and the stigma around mental ‘health’ is very much still in place. The perception being broadcast is very much around a dogma of being broken. The language like ‘negative’, ‘health’ and ‘disorder’ speaks volumes about how you would want to keep that hidden. There is no homeostasis in that.

If the new language that we used around what was happening in our bodies was curious and empathetic we might be able to create a safe space to have these really important conversations to understand that we are not alone in what is happening for us, and that our body’s response to the world is appropriate.

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Finally, what do you hope the people who encounter the installation will take away from it?

Art is a way of seeing, bringing to light issues that people are unwilling to discuss or are numb to. It is a language that enables us to express our vulnerabilities and receive genuine embraces.

Could we use the potential of art to re-approach these emotions and destigmatise them? It offers a different, more empowering and uplifting paradigm for understanding human nature than the one that dominates our culture.

I aim to create a socially-engaged art project that has a positive impact on the mental wellbeing of the people of Rotherham, especially in times of such uncertain political and economic futures. A coming together through social art connects others on a human level, builds trust and forges new ways of being through understanding and unity. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring wellbeing. We can change social conditions to create environments in which we can feel safe and where we can thrive.

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