For more than a decade now, Stuart Ringholt has been happily exploring social anxiety, embarrassment and fear.
Back in 2003, in one particularly excruciating series of performances, Ringholt acted out humiliating scenarios that invited public ridicule. In different crowded locations he wore a prosthetic nose and fake facial scars, walked around with snot streaming down his face and trailed toilet paper behind him.
As the title of that series makes clear – Conceptual Art Improved My Embarrassing Life – there’s always been a cathartic, even pragmatic, quality to Ringholt’s performances. They’re as much about overcoming social anxiety as they are about understanding how it works or the toll it takes on us. In the publicity for Kraft – the new survey exhibition of his work at the Monash University Museum of Art (until 17 April) – Ringholt is described as “fearless”, but “formerly fearful” would be much more accurate.
“I come out of a history of mental illness,” says Ringholt, referring to the period of psychosis and psychiatric care that he experienced in his early twenties (and documented in the book Hashish Psychosis: What It's Like to Be Mentally Ill and Recover). “Consciousness about how I feel and how others feel is very important to me.”
In more recent years, Ringholt’s work has become more participatory. Instead of being the sole beneficiary of his therapeutic experiments, the general public is now invited to join in. Under Ringholt’s guidance, audiences are encouraged to learn, like he has done, how to relieve themselves of their sense of embarrassment.
As part of an ongoing naturist project, for example, Ringholt creates situations where gallery visitors are required to be naked, exposed to the art and to each other. He’s conducted nude art tours in the chilly depths of MONA in Hobart and against the spectacular backdrop of Sydney Harbour at the MCA.
As Ringholt sees it, galleries are stripped back to bare white cubes – all the better to appreciate the art – so why shouldn’t guests in the gallery do the same?
“Often the clothing we wear as an audience is more complex on a material level than the art in the show,” says Ringholt. “So by stripping all that off, all the colour is left on the floor except for skin tone. ... The artwork has the opportunity and the sole license for colour.”
In addition to hosting its own nude art tour (on April 2), MUMA is currently home to a glittery disco called Club Purple, where visitors can dance naked to a string of feel good hits. Entry is policed by a gallery "bouncer": no clothes, no touching, no photographs and definitely no sexy times (although when I was there, the speakers were blaring Prince’s “Cream”...).
“The work is for people who participate, but it’s also for the people who don’t participate,” Ringholt says. “Fundamentally they will ask themselves the question, can I be naked in public with other people? … The answer is either yes or no or I feel anxious about that or who knows…”
Both the naturist tours and the new nude disco encourage us to think about what we do and don’t feel comfortable with in social situations. But more importantly, they’re about creating a context where it’s safe to test out what we really feel/think.
“The disco is just about creating a very beautiful and pleasurable space for someone to dance, quite simply to have fun and dance to their favourite song. It’s very much about being self-loving and being accepting of one’s body…and at least for a moment in their life, forgetting about their exterior skin and how they present themselves.”
Some people have read Ringholt as ironic (in large part because he’s humorous, and it’s an exceptional thing to be both earnest and laugh-out-loud funny). “I’m not cynical. I’m not poking fun,” he stresses, “I’m actually a big supporter of self-help and an advocate of healing within the arts. I’m very genuine about it. But fundamentally you have to decide whether I’m of full of shit or not.”
One of the reasons it’s sometimes hard to gauge the level of Ringholt’s sincerity is because these activities take place within serious fine arts institutions and major biennales (and not, as you might expect, through the prism of community arts or social wellbeing).
Another reason is because running alongside the naturist events and the anger workshops is the rest of Ringholt’s practice, which doesn't have the same social dimension. Many of the works in Kraft are, as Ringholt says, “very formal propositions”; collages of two images or objects which have been stuck to together in unlikely ways.
Viewed in this light, conducting self-help sessions in a museum or naturist events in an urban art space seems like yet another kind of formal proposition; a strange collage of two unlikely companions. Or maybe, in trying to get Ringholt’s work, I’m going about it all wrong. He certainly seems to think so.
“I don’t think work needs to be understood. You don’t need to bring cognition or knowledge to it.” He goes on, “There’s this great book by Krishnamurti called Freedom from the Known. Knowledge is limited. Love is unlimited. So lead your life with love and emotion, not knowledge and intellect.”
Ringholt’s work, like so much self-help culture, has a very weird logic to it. You’re asked to read books or attend workshops in order to learn how to be better in-tune with your feelings; to think about how best to think less. But it’s a weird logic that Ringholt is perfectly okay with.
“There are false expectations around the role of fine arts where people think a work should be reduced down to where it’s illustrating a topical issue which the audience understands and so can move on and feel happy about themselves. No. I don’t think that’s what the role of art is at all. I think it’s good if it angers and confuses people.”
>> Maura Edmond
>> Posted 27 March 2014