“One night, at the age of twenty-three I wanted to have sex with my mother”. It’s a great first line in any book, perhaps especially an autobiography on recovering from hashish psychosis. Stuart Ringholt suffered these and other delusions following a binge in 1994. Since when, he has experimented with art as part of his recovery.
Ringholt wanted to know whether art can be practical: “Can art literally improve my life on an interpersonal level?” Surprisingly he discovered it can.
And each new work to date does indeed seem to reflect his recovery step-by-step, practicing various methods or techniques of self improvement: long walks in nature collecting sculptural material; works to assist in yoga, focusing the mind, supporting the body; abstract painting to meditate upon to ‘improve his life’ and quiet his mind; a stock-take (and disavowal) of all the material goods in his life (13,011); re-enactment performances of delusions (dressing as a superhero in front of identical twins while protected by a security guard); public performances to confront and overcome embarrassment (including hanging toilet paper out of his pants, or wearing a bad prosthetic nose); workshops with others to explore their anger or joy; naturist outings and gallery tours.
While art may have cured Ringholt, art therapy is usually of more interest to therapist and patient. But Ringholt has rendered a fascinating though disquieting series of works of great interest to others, pitched somewhere between therapeutic techniques and conceptual art practices.
Though he is untrained, he’s no naif. No art brut phantasms in obsessive crayon or evil stick figures, but rather videos, performance, digital montage, collaborative workshops. “Conceptual art to improve your life”, he says, in equal parts “social and experimental”. And if we believe Ringholt, art has made him calmer, more aware and more confident with women.
Artforum magazine called him a fool, which is perhaps closer to the truth, since while his personal recovery may seem ridiculous, or less significant, compared to the grander claims of art to reflect epochal social change or usher in new movements, it nonetheless raises the question of efficacy closer to home, at an individual level.
The role of the fool has always been to speak truth to power, and folly is characterised by a knowing frankness (not a naivete), uninhibited by social convention. The fool in royal court often behaved like a lunatic (if he wasn’t genuinely mad) occupying a unique position outside, yet close to, court, where their fooling – or their tactical madness – allowed an expression of wisdom, or a truth to be entertained, that might test the assumptions of nobility.
Common to foolery and psychosis then is a heightened awareness of the theatricality of all social behaviour, and Ringholt has rightly sensed the dramatic and humorous potential in his recovery, which he has awkwardly staged in public – even tried to share with others in workshops and public performances.
But I’m not sure I trust his po-face – certainly no curator should. A Daihatsu Charade with personalised “Cur8tor” plates parked outside the museum, or Captain Kirk cast as a curator in re-edited Star Trek episodes. And wouldn’t you feel compelled – as the curator – to dance nude at Ringholt’s daytime disco? These all strike me as forms of revenge.
Ringholt is all too aware of the brink, which he has once crossed but which most others will baulk at or avoid the moment it gets embarrassing, or awkward, or uncomfortable, or inappropriate.
Hybrid anxious sculpture – not quite this or that – recombining disparate objects confusing purpose and function. Or collages interchanging subjects and identities. These may be analogous to mental states, figuring the dissolution of ego boundaries, a stage in Ringholt’s awakening. But attending a personal development workshop or a meditation session in a gallery led by the artist is less ‘a dramatic reinvention of the museum as an embodied space’ (as one museum put it) than just good old-fashioned institutional critique.
Ringholt remarks the boundary between art and non-art as a psychological divide, and, indeed, his work frequently provokes panic among audiences who might champion radical formalism but demur from breaking down or stripping off in public themselves.
In the same way that relational aesthetics did nothing to transform the class structure of art consumption, but rather reminded us how entrenched social strata are in the artworld, Ringholt’s psychological aesthetics – proclaiming to help and pretending a concern for the mental well-being of others – reminds me just how fucked up the artworld actually is, typically characterised by high anxiety, anger, and pretension.
Unfortunately I don’t imagine any ‘improvement’ to the industry’s gross mental health due to Ringholt’s interventions. Yes, his free workshops may ‘sell out’, naturists may finally feel welcome, there is always an audience for the trumped up transgression of institutional spaces and practices, and – as ever – others come to watch.
The facile laminate, may lift and peel at the edges momentarily, but remains impervious beyond the occasional, fleeting experience of Ringholt’s work: the piety and jealousy, the vainglory, the rigid posturing, the sleaze, the nervous laughter and shit-eating grins, and the unceasing bitching. The artworld is a world of pain after all, as it probably should be.