Anxiety, Art and Lauryn Youden’s Kunstsommer Detox Retreat – 10 notes on the SSS: Sacred Serpent Sessions at the Meridian Spa

  • 18.09.2017

Often I tell myself I have seen a poetry reading that couldn’t be stranger. Most recently at Tropez, a public swimming pool in Berlin, poets and artists performed to a backdrop of screaming kids and sunbathing adults, but I have also seen poetry recited in such incongruous places as a loading bay of a Lidl, a building site, on a raft floating down a canal, in parks, forests and airports. When Lauryn Youden stood before me stark naked in a sauna in the Meridian Spa in Frankfurt, as I reclined on a towel likewise naked, surrounded by a dozen or so artworld people, all also naked, I thought once more: the limit does not exist. But what was truly remarkable though, besides from the context and the shock (I think it’s safe to use such a strong adjective in describing those first moments of being in the sauna, as the entire performance lasted seven hours, in and out of several saunas the shock certainly dissipated before finally disappearing completely to turn into something perhaps approaching its opposite, calmness, assurance) was what Youden said as way of introduction: she would be presenting a number of works, readings and exercises, audio and textile installations, a whole afternoon scenario, that came from her interest in mental health and her own struggles with anxiety, depression and insomnia.

This had all happened very quickly: I had believed I would be attending a kind of extended poetry and sound installation on a Frankfurt rooftop (the press release for the event was a lithe, sinuous poem: ‘the lengths / you hope to / never take again / but know you / probably will...’) but within a few minutes of arriving at the Meridian Spa in one of the many new builds of Frankfurt’s skyline, here we were in what would have been a paradigm of vulnerability or awkwardness only for that it had the much more impressive aura of naturalness, common sense, fearlessness. If only art was always like this and talk of mental illness was anything but shocking or surprising.

Lauryn Youden is a Canadian artist living in Germany who won the forth Berlin Art Prize in 2016 for, as the jury statement had it, her installation which was ‘a testament to the long history of marginalized alternatives to western medicine…[and] created a participatory refuge that challenges us to consider our relationship to work, ambition and health.’ At the invitation of curator María Inés Plaza Youden put together Sacred Serpent Sessions: Kunstsommer Detox Retreat inside a spa where a group of artworld denizens could sweat out the decennial overdose of the Athens-Venice-Basel-Kassel-Muenster route and learn to breathe again. The proposition could be dismissed as merely cute if it wasn’t so desperately needed: who ever talks about how unhealthy it is to go and see all this art? We’re all guilty of romanticising addiction and early deaths, in as much as pop culture does it for us, and while I’m not about to suggest attending such art events would leave you in ill health, we all seem to proffer anecdotal evidence to prove otherwise. What’s more, the historic moment is one characterised by collective rising anxieties about everything from climate change to nuclear war. Even Arcade Fire are making albums about youth insecurity, what is the world coming to? Youden’s work seems to be a personal set of practices and expression that doesn’t reflect this moment back or dress it up in the language of the post digital vernacular, rather it is both symptomatic of it while also offering remedy and treatment to said symptoms.

There can come a moment when the decision to make art is the result of a need or results in a need: the uncertainty of life when residing inside the shapeshifting domain of contemporary cultural production is acute and we all know that those who have financial security as artists are few, and the system itself rewards even fewer with a long term source of income, a pension plan or even just a plain old fashioned dopamine drenched sense of accomplishment. As Herzog put it about his own art: Cinema has given me everything, but has also taken everything from me. I bring this up because I think the cause of so much of my own anxiety in the past was the disability to distinguish between what I needed to do, and the life I had constructed for myself in order to do it, and the deep frustrations, insecurities and loathsome sense of on-going failures that seemed to go hand in hand with each passing season of my life. But then again I’m not so sure about this. That’s the thing about anxiety: it is pervasive but slippery, there and not there, and even to write about it is to always lapse, in my experience, into almost poetic sounding wistfulness.

Anxiety, angoisse, angst. What do these words summon to my mind? Old people on the BBC. Sartre. Kirkegaard. The need to pay rent; the cold rain on the evening of my 32nd birthday: the tropes of anxiety can be rarefied, filmic and pretty much mundane, all at once.

To put this art retreat inside a literary tradition is important when considering the visual art of Youden – literature versus visual art, I’m never going to get tired of breaking down this demarcation – because literature and novelists always love to talk about courage and bravery, whether this is something to do with their sense of inferiority about not being recognised as having either of those things inherently I cannot say, but picking up a pen and spending lots of time on your own does lead to prolonged moments of doubt and weakness of nerve, perhaps that’s why some of them have gone off to fight wars. Most recently the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño has made this fashionable again, just when we thought silly men rushing off to write or take part in silly wars was démodé, Bolaño suddenly burst upon the scene and replaced wars with the more insidious turmoil of emigration, exile, vocation. “Courage takes many forms. Sometimes it’s a ghost that hovers over our heads. Sometimes it’s a gleam to which we are irrationally faithful.” I wonder what consolation’s relationship to courage is, should one be courageous and brave in their search for life’s consolations? Or should one start out by ignoring any and all need for consolations whatsoever? Courage is the art of continuing without the goal of relief; the moment of tenderness rewarded by our faithfulness to those gleams offered by life itself.

The proscenium Youden and her curator chose I suspect influenced some of the choices of the process we underwent: there were a number of saunas of various temperatures and aromas, with hourly intense towel whipped sessions of even higher intensity that lasted for five minutes at a time. As well as this gauntlet, there was a steam room, a rotunda swimming pool under a glass dome ceiling, an outdoor Jacuzzi, a Japanese ‘zen garden’, a yoga hall and café bar. We moved through this somewhat tacky and ersatz environment by way of a peristalsis that was more message than squeeze. I fell asleep twice on one of the poolside loungers as I slowly perused the accompanying booklet published by Reflektor-M. I thought to myself: the rest of us may be missing out on something by failing to see the potential of spa resorts as settings for our art. The Schatzalp of Thomas Mann this was not. The spa is a space isolated from the world, or a space unmoored from the world beyond. I always refer back to my first entry into a Thomas Hirschhorn environment as the moment I saw what one potential endpoint was for the term installation art, the energy, mania and thrash philosophy of Hirschhorn couldn’t be further from Youden’s art but I think of this very personal first encounter with contemporary art because the sense of all encompassment and potential in following Youden’s programme, in a novel and unexpected direction (namely the meditative, the perspiring body as aesthetic locus and god forbid art as therapy) managed to rekindle that first formative memory.

But things aren’t always simple: one salient aspect of anxiety as I have gotten to know it is the immense difficulty in communicating it, and with this difficulty comes the necessity to learn personally how to overcome it. The formulas extent may not be right for me: the knowledge of panic and rising fear is an insidious knowledge for once learned it is hard to unlearn. The memories of panic attacks feed the fire of each subsequent panic attack. The history of alternative medicines is rich and as old if not older than medicine itself, but like everything from religion to love, contemporary pressure has resulted in igneous reputations and accusations of sophistry. What is applicable to osteopathy or homeopathy say can probably work as a metaphor for the therapeutic in art as far as contemporary and modern art is concerned. The instructional artwork, like the humanist say, or pre-modern figuration, is not in trend. Youden wasn’t instructing us necessarily but we did carry out breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, things that we could take with us after the event and use later outside the moment of art. Personally, in my search to unlearn the knowledge of my anxiety and panic in the last year and a half I am ready to learn and be open to what perhaps previously I would not have paid much attention to. (Learning to unlearn is, lest we forget, 2017’s quack curator phrase par excellence after all).

So while I listened with curiosity and attention to the more straight forward exercises such as simple breathing techniques and pressure point releases, as well as muscle tensing in the face of a rising panic attack, there were other moments where I found scepticism leading to resistance or disinterest. But such moments aren’t to be fought (in the zen spirit of the faux pagodas on the terrace) but simply taken in as part of the whole. Some days later I’m tempted to make the comparison between taste and opinions of the individual art critic in the face of the kaleidoscopic array of the current landscape. But I won’t. So breathing techniques I am all for, likewise sleep hygiene, but then chakras and the Caduceus Cultivation I found harder to get into. Like when I read Descartes, I found the evil demon all to plausible and loved the thought experiment that allowed The Matrix even more credibility, but then struggled and scoffed when he grabbled with his pineal gland.

That moment when listening to the sound bath installation in the pool, the water making the headphones cancel out all extraneous sound so that Youden’s soundscape was all that could be heard, slowly gleaming like Bolaño’s form of courage. The dome of glass rose above and then out of the blue, cold seeming sky, turned two cranes slowly, their loads of material passing through space toward unseen construction figures in overalls and hard hats. An accidental alignment unlike Lindsay Lawson’s use of cranes last year, or Cyprien Galliard’s construction site ballet before that, and immensely pleasing in its surreptitiousness. Below the red cranes the current apex of a new skyscraper, and behind it all an already completed skyscraper of the PwC Group. Global consultancy and the world of certainty: I had no doubt as I floated with the absurd luxury of someone who gets to go on art retreats that working in the professional services came with its own paralysing anxieties and ill-health inducing stress. But the scene was silent as if in a vacuum beyond the immediacy of the low hum of the soundtrack. What I was staring at was a future perhaps, a clean take on Blade Runner.

Outside the day was bright and fresh and while the sky was blue it was definitely no longer summer. A reading is taking place in the Jacuzzi for the limit does not exist for reading locations. This time we listen to an excerpt from Kleinzeit, a novel by Russell Hoban that it is safe to say is something of a cult classic. At the time I didn’t put two and two together that Hoban was the novelist of Ridley Walker, a book I had researched some time earlier for its novel deployment of a future pidgin English in a post-apocalyptic world where man has fallen due to nuclear war. Hoban was an American writer who lived most of his life in London and also served as a soldier in his younger days. He was prolific, both as a children’s writer and a novelist of books that have steadily assured his reputation and a cult following: Kleinzeit was his second novel for adults and published when he was 49. It is a novel that looks at what is sometimes lamentably termed the ‘creative impulse’ and illness. The main character Kleinzeit is a copywriter who loses his job, gets sick and is admitted to the Hospital, which itself becomes a character and with him Kleinzeit has several conversations along with Sister a nurse. In the excerpt read by Youden, and which is included in the programme reader, the Sister thinks about Kleinzeit’s blood tests as she and Dr Krishna appear to have a sexual encounter. It’s early on in the novel. The Sister thinks to herself/God, and this is underlined in the copy included in our readers: ‘What I mean is, it isn’t a matter of finding a well man, it’s a matter of finding one who makes the right use of his sickness.’ There is running throughout Youden’s poetry and general choice of works cited and positioning of herself that love and attraction play a large part in the process of dealing with her mental illness, which isn’t really a surprise I guess, but it makes me come back to consider the role of consolation and tenderness in her practice.

Ultimately I want to be frank but it needs a whole other set of notes and thoughts to get through the twists and turns of my own history of anxiety and panic attacks. But then that’s what art and writing are there for: there is no rush. One closing thought is the simple comparison between two moments of artworld proximity.

The first moment was a Ryanair flight from Athens to Berlin. Pretty much everyone on the flight back from Athens was returning from attending the opening days of Documenta. I nodded and smiled at the all too many familiar faces of artists, curators and critics. I was in a bad way, hungover and deflated from a week of being on my feet, socialising and partying and doing a just about passable job of failing to see all the art, if such a thing were possible. Since about a year and a half planes have given me panic attacks, mostly due to a strong claustrophobia that is brought out whenever my body is tired or sore and this flight was certainly no different. It was a full flight and the sense of collective hangover was palpable and to get through the bus ride from downtown Athens to the airport, through security and into the cabin, I took a lorazepam and tried to think nothing at all. Sleep flittered by and flirted with my dejected body but other than a general view from the last row of the plane, I can’t recall anything of note from this flight. Just another or many, passed into oblivion, the blur accentuated by the muscle relaxant cursing through my blood.

The second moment then brings me back to the beginning of these thoughts and contrasts with the above mentioned flight because while it also involves a cast of artworld personalities and a cramped, claustrophobic space this time it is under the aegis of Youden and of course there is no need for a any benzodiazepine.