By Ade Blackburn
Last week Bluecoat launched their The Lives of Artists season, comprising of exhibitions, commissions, residencies, events and workshops. The Lives of Artists asks audiences “what might be uncovered about ourselves when we listen to the testimony, histories, and stories of artists reflecting on their lives?”
Here we’ll look into the transformative power of art, exploring how artists’ expressions of their lives and experiences can help us understand our own identities, navigate cultural contexts, and tap into our subconscious minds.
Understanding & Identity
At the centre of The Lives of Artists are two exhibitions; Thanks for Having Me by Babak Ganjei and and it feels like I just got home by Joshua Clague.
Ganjei reflects on his life and career as an artist. The deferential title of his exhibition, Thanks for Having Me, looks back on his life of operating on the margins and never quite being sure where he belongs. In a new work, Ganjei has stacked all of the books he owns but has never read to the exact height of the artist, creating a crude portrait of the artist’s aspirations and shortcomings.
In and it feels like I just got home Clague is interested in enduring memories of the female voice in his life. The exhibition often riffs on the pop-icons and divas that he once emulated. His work also lays out how his sense of self changes at different times, in different places.
Seeing the expressions of artists laid out can give us a better understanding of our own lives and crucially, make us feel less alone. Artists are often at the vanguard of culture and act as a kind of weather vane for people who follow their work and lives.
Art can also help us make sense of the cultural context in which we live and relate to each other. This is especially relevant with issues of race and gender. Artists can fight for a cause and highlight contradictions and prejudice.
Writer Jennifer Lee Tsai who performs in The Lives of Artists season as their featured writer, looks at the second generation immigrant experience, with themes of ancestral trauma, loss and belonging. Tsai draws on her own life and the lives of others around her to create beautiful and powerful work that helps us understand each other and resonate with our own sense of self.
Their work serves as a mirror reflecting the complex nature of human identity. As we engage with these reflections, we may find aspects of ourselves mirrored in the art, leading to a deeper understanding of who we are. This can be both affirming and challenging, prompting us to question our preconceived notions as well as encouraging personal growth.
Additionally, art has a unique ability to tap into the subconscious mind, bringing to light thoughts and feelings that lurk beneath the surface of our awareness. Surreal paintings and abstract compositions often act as windows into the hidden recesses of our minds, prompting us to confront and explore our own thoughts.
The Lives of Artists has two billboard commissions, Horse Big by Tess Gilmartin and Liverpool Waterfront by Ottman Said, in which both artists use abstraction as a way to create beautifully complex landscapes. They feel rooted to the landscape, and reflect this sense of belonging in their work.
In the New York Times 2023 bestseller, Your Brain on Art, How the Arts Transform Us, Susan Magsamen argues “We talk about meditation and mindfulness as a way to make us feel better; the arts also allow us to change our state of mind”.
It can be incredibly empowering to see these expressions from an artist, particularly in today’s alienating culture. Art provides a safe space for the expression of our own emotions and has the power to bridge gaps and foster empathy by providing an insight into the lived experiences of others. When we engage with art that portrays diverse narratives and perspectives, we broaden our understanding of what it is to be human. Through this interconnectedness, we can discover commonalities that unite us as well as understanding and respecting each others differences.
The Lives of Artists at Bluecoat
Babak Ganjei: Thanks for Having Me – 9 February – 14 April
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Joshua Clague: and it feels like I just got home, 9 February – 1 April
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Ottman Said: Liverpool Waterfront, 8 Feb – 10 Mar
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Tess Gilmartin: Horse Big, 16 Mar – 14 Apr
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All exhibitions are free, just drop-in.