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On Happiness by Yulin Huang, MA Fine Art, Central Saint Martins

Exhibition space with yellow projection on walls
  • Written byPost-Grad Community
  • Published date05 October 2021
Exhibition space with yellow projection on walls
On Happiness, Wellcome Collection

Written by Yulin Huang, MA Fine Art, Central Saint Martins.

How do you begin to define an elusive emotion like ‘Happiness’?

The two co-curators of the Wellcome Collection’s ‘On Happiness’ exhibitions, Laurie Britton Newell and George Vasey, quickly realised they couldn’t - at least not settle the term within a single definition. Instead, they carefully crafted a series of shows and events to rethink what it means to “feel good”, whilst celebrating the multiplicity of positive emotions ranging broadly from reverie to euphoria.

In an incredibly engaging tour by the curators arranged as part of the Post-Grad Community's first Post-Grad MA Mixer Event Series for this academic year, a group of around twenty students were able to gain insight into the breadth of material that showcases historical and contemporary thinking into the complexity of such a feeling we all strive for.

Group of people listening to a curator talk
Curator talking to students in the ‘Joy’ show

In the galleries they avoided the word ‘Happiness’, George explained, settling on the two terms ‘Joy’ and ‘Tranquillity’ to split the ground and first floor galleries. The visitor route was an important curatorial decision, the journey perhaps starting downstairs through a more grounded, serene space that deals with inward-looking projects (meditation, reading, creative flow) and upstairs through a more elevated space of ‘Joy’ that contributes to outward-facing questions of family, relationships, community and collectivism.

Group of people listening to a curator talk
On Happiness, Wellcome Collection

In the group that started the tour with ‘Joy’, we were immediately greeted by the bright projection of Harold Offeh’s new commissioned work, Joy Inside Our Tears, which presents various responses of dancers to instructions such as shaking, passing out, and dancing in slow motion. Offeh collaborated with the choreographer Vânia Gala on exploring the restorative qualities of dance with an interest of medieval dancing manias.

One of the themes of the exhibition is notion of ego loss. When we were researching happiness, of course there were so many ways of achieving‘feeling good’, but one of the key things was about forgetting who you are for a bit, whether that’s about being with others or meditating.. just forgetting your anxieties and difficulties even for a moment...

— George Vasey (Curator, Wellcome Collection)
Two people stood in front of a yellow projection
On Happiness, Wellcome Collection

As George explained, Joy Inside Our Tears is quite a conflicted work, not necessarily just a joyful one - in fact, some parts are uncomfortable to watch, capturing that entanglement of the positivity and negativity through public manifestations. This slightly unsettling work led perfectly into Offeh’s 2001 work Smile, in which the artist smiles through gritted teeth through the song ‘Smile’, its melody originally written by Charlie Chaplin in the Great Depression. The grimace can be read as a camouflage and questions the performance of joy, to the point of celebrating hope in the face of adversity.

A man grimacing on a tv screen with the subtitles 'if you smile through your fear and sorrows'
Harold Offeh’s 'Smile'

What was also fascinating to see was how historical materials were in dialogue with contemporary work in the gallery space. Looking at the Anonymous drawing in Epitomata seu Reparationes totius philosophiae naturalis Aristotelis (The Natural Philosophy of Aristotle), dating to 1496, it was not surprising to hear that David Shrigley, one of the commissioned artists for the show, thought highly of the drawings - seeing his work’s visual similarities to this piece of history in the Wellcome Collection’s archive.

Open book in a glass case
On Happiness, Wellcome Collection
Group of 6 illustrations
On Happiness, Wellcome Collection

Another powerful dialogue echoed towards the end of the ‘Joy’ space, where the photograph Smiley Face Protest, University of Maryland from 1971 is displayed near Amalia Pica’s 2020-21 work Procession for eighteen. The smiley being a symbol of activism and peaceful statement of protest spoke powerfully to Pica’s resting placards, leaning as if left over after a march. George reiterates that the show thinks largely about how ‘feeling good’ is unequally distributed through systems of oppression and inequality, excluding certain communities of people from these joyful narratives. The two works express the commitment to political positivity, for different groups of people to come together cultivating change for a fairer, happier world - a compelling way to end the ‘Joy’ show.

Photo of people arranged into a smiley face
On Happiness, Wellcome Collection
Room full of placards
On Happiness, Wellcome Collection

Downstairs, through the doors of ‘Tranquillity’, an immediate sense of calm washes over the visitor through low lighting and ambient sounds. It’s all about the timeless approaches to achieving a sense of balance and calm, Laurie stated, as she guided us through to Jasleen Kaur’s 2021 installation My Body is a Temple of Gloom, a playful critique of the wellness industry. It touches on the cultural appropriation and unethical practices present in this multibillion-dollar economy. It asks us, can you practice self-care at the expense of others?

Students in a purple lit exhibition
Students walking through Kaur’s installation

Through Laurie’s insightful commentary we were led to some individual pursuits to tranquillity, such as the historical artefact Le régime du corps (Regime of the Body), a medieval wellbeing manual from 1390 to the bold affirmations written by the science fiction writer Octavia E Butler used for self-encouragement. “Tranquillity” ends beautifully with Chrystel Lebas’ immersive 2021 installation Regarding Forests utilising sound, scent, and low lighting levels to deliver_ the sublime experience of these ancient forests. With this illuminating sense of awe, Lebas brings the natural world into the gallery as if to remind us of the wonder of nature again - and how it holds a certain power to restore our spirits.

Exhibition room of large images of forests
Lebas’ Regarding Forests
It’s not a happy show, it’s a show about happy feelings

— George Vasey (Curator, Wellcome Collection)
Group of people listening to a curator talk
On Happiness, Wellcome Collection

Overall, this special curator tour of the ‘On Happiness’ exhibitions was an invaluable experience, reading into a fascinating array of nuances found within the term ‘happiness’. As the curators stated_, the shows aim to make people feel something, but also question where that feeling comes from.

We certainly walked away with a lot of ‘happy’ feelings and questions to think about! Thank you again to the Post-Grad Community team for arranging this mixer event at such a valuable site, providing a perfect ground to meet fellow post-grads at the start of the academic year - to new friendships and insightful research - happiness!

Do make sure to go see the ‘Joy’ (~ 27 February 2022) and ‘Tranquillity’ (~ 9 January 2022) exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection for yourself!

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