Humans: An Examination of Art and Psychology

Tania Bruguera’s ’10,146,594

Down in the Tate Modern’s turbine hall, away from the hustle and bustle, lie the subtle interventions comprising Tania Bruguera’s ‘10,146,594’. Each element is designed to elicit reflection upon the migration crisis. The title’s ever increasing number reflects the increasing number of migrant deaths. Conceptually, her work makes a profound point. As art? I’m not so sure. Poignant details are unacknowledged by the majority of visitors. It’s questionable whether Bruguera manages to combat apathy, so much as create it. 

An expanse of thermo-chronic ink stretches across the floor. After ten minutes my body heat reveals an underwhelming patch of colour. Waiting to be revealed is the large portrait of Yusef, a Syrian migrant who fled to the UK in escape of violence in Homs. To reveal his image, 200-300 people are needed to generate enough heat. I’m sceptical about whether Yusef’s portrait really exists, since it has never yet been revealed. The flooring functions better as a crèche, where tired parents entertain children as their families explore the Tate’s upper levels.

My hand is stamped in red ink with the exhibition title, forcing me to become part of an experience I don’t fully understand. I enter an inconspicuous side room, where I am hit with the pungent smell of menthol. It’s like bathing in Vicks Vaporub. Tears immediately pool in the corners of my eyes. In the air is an organic compound designed to force visitors to cry together. As I make a confused attempt to understand why I am crying, I begin to laugh. I share a mutual sense of bewilderment with others. In leaving the room, I now readdress the floor with a determined curiosity as to what I’m supposed to make of all this.  

Visiting this art installation without preconception is largely disappointing. Yet, understanding the Psychology behind Bruguera’s socio-political interventions reveal a whole new way to engage with the installation and learn about the migration crisis. By inviting us to become part of the installation itself, Bruguera stimulates and directs thought through embodied cognition. This is the idea that our bodily experience fundamentally shapes the way we think; it’s not just our brains that do the thinking. Thoughts and feelings can be shaped by any number of things including how we sit, our body temperature or what we’re touching. For example, we stand tall to feel more confident when speaking in public. What’s more, is we actually do this more than we think.

According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff, metaphor also uses embodied cognition. Popular metaphors like ‘over the moon’ or ‘down in the dumps’ use terms of motion and embodiment. Embodied cognition may also play a role in gestures, which simulate spatial information through indicating direction and motion.

By requiring people to immerse themselves in her installation, Bruguera invites people to embody it. She offers a unique way to learn about the migrants’ experience, by directly addressing the apathy towards it. Those lying on the floor feel frustrated at those refusing to engage with it. However, the urge to rally strangers’ together feels futile amidst the great expanse of the hall, and no-one wants to single themselves out against the hesitant adults hovering at the edge. To lie on the floor with strangers seems unnatural. It’s more disconcerting to imagine how close 300 people would be when laid on the portrait. Bruguera’s work has been heavily criticised for needing so many people to reveal Yusef’s image. However, she pertinently replies that it is disappointing that hundreds of votes are needed for a law to change. Instead, she intends to stimulate co-operation and a sense of community in the face of apathy. 

Bruguera tests social boundaries against the reality that migrants do not have such comforts. Their privacy and dignity is compromised as they live closely in makeshift camps, or huddle onto boats in hope of greener pastures. Sadly, this poignant attempt to combat apathy is only available to those who embody the artwork. Becoming part of the installation shapes our thoughts and emotions towards it, unlike the blissfully unaware children running chaotically across the floor. To those engaging with the installation, this conjures thoughts of the migrant children, who are innocent among the chaos in their lives. For the majority, however, it creates apathy as people question how a floor could possibly relate to the migrant crisis. 

The crying room employs embodied cognition by forcing the viewer to physically cry. This immediately influences thoughts and emotions as you scramble to make sense of your own bodily reactions which catch you off guard. Acknowledging this response with strangers in the room creates shared empathy. By connecting with strangers, we combat the apathy we usually adopt towards those unknown to us. In the same way, Bruguera aims to combat apathy towards migrants by immersing viewers in a community-driven response to the crisis. Such changes at a local level are rarely enacted, because individuals feel powerless to make progress. Bruguera brought together the Tate Neighbours, a group of local people living within the poignTate’s postcode, to curate this installation. This approach to art as a social experiment stimulates personal reflection, which goes some way to empower people and stimulate change.

The concepts of embodied cognition and immersing strangers in one’s art are not new. Marina Abramovic radically invited strangers to use different objects towards her body, to communicate with her however they wished. This was intended to force visitors out of their usual patterns of thinking. In this way, each artist uses embodied cognition to communicate art as an experience, where visitors generate the artists’ intentions for themselves. 

As art, Bruguera’s installation is arguably too subtle, increasing apathy amongst the majority. However, unlocking the potential of this installation through embodied cognition transitions it into a poignant journey of personal reflection, combatting apathy with empathy. The emphasis on emotion contrasts the politics of migration, which is dominated by emotionless facts and figures. You can experience ‘10,146,594’ at the Tate Modern until 24th February 2019.

Tianne Haggar, 25th January 2019, 15:49

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