Everyday Readymades

October 24, 2013


Photo: Everyday Objects by Rhea Batz

“Experimentation also involves attention to the normally unnoticed” (Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life)

Does newly produced art have to always be made in art therapy? Or, can art therapy also incorporate personally significant collection of everyday objects? The readymade objects that inhabit domestic life, work, leisure and daily experiences are many. Gathering and assembling items that have symbolic meaning can act as a condensed personal archive. Combining different dimensions of life into a mini-installation, or life sculpture, brings into relationship many kinds of experiences. Allan Kaprow used the idea of “life like art” to describe art that reminds us of the rest of our lives. He encouraged us to be conscious inventors of the life that also invents us. How can we revision the materials we interact with on a daily basis as artworks in art therapy?

It’s a strange thought, that personal identity and qualities of mind and character can be discovered not only in people, but also in objects, landscapes, jars or boxes. If this seems a bit odd, it’s because we have, by and large, emptied the visual realm of personal character. Yet when we feel kinship with an object, it is because the values we sense that it carries are clearer in it than they usually are in our minds (Alain de Botton and John Armstrong)

In his book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes how domestic objects are in essence hybrids in their role as subject-objects. Subject-objects are intimately felt, they are handled items that reflect what we hold on to for practical and symbolic reasons. A subject-object could be a piece of clothing, photograph, pen, mobile phone, a piece of jewellery, an inherited ornament, or something picked up off the street. The organisation and display of a ready-made assemblage can be a vital composition, highlighting the life situations of an art therapy participant in a concrete way. Reconstituting ordinary objects into a re-mixing of meaning  (or finding the valuable in the taken-for-granted) is not only a guide to self-knowledge, but a way to replenish awareness of what’s around us.


Photo: A Display of Shoes and Sticks, Belfast Art Therapy Summer School, 2013

A recent article in the Financial Times by Susie Boyt called “Identity in a Biscuit Tin” describes the work of Christian Boltanski, whose recent installation at the Pompidou Centre in Paris is composed of 646 old biscuit tines, containing 1200 photographs and 800 documents gathered by the artist from his studio over a 23 year period. Boyt writes, “standing in front of Les Archives made me think of so many things: exile, humility, childhood, home, concealment and display, and how we as humans come to measure and regard our own personal history, our memories, and our suffering”


Photo: Les archives de Christian Boltanski 1965-1989,  placed in biscuit tins.

From personal objects arranged as a documentation of experience, to biscuit tins as containers of personal history, the subject of what is an art material in art therapy requires critical consideration. Using everyday readymades is a means of inviting art therapy participants to “come as they are” to “be themselves” rather than fitting into art materials that don’t suit how they live their lives.

It’s a strange thought, that personal identity and qualities of mind and character can be discovered not only in people, but also in objects, landscapes, jars or boxes. It this seems a bit odd, it’s because we have, by and large, emptied the visual realm of personal character. Yet when we feel a kinship with an object, it is because the values we sense that it carries are clearer in it than they usually are in our minds (Alain de Botton and John Armstrong).

It is important for people to feel at home in art therapy, to feel relaxed and share who they are. The Irish artist Kate Murphy’s writes that home

…is an extension of The Self, an archetype of both physical and psychological boundaries and the primary site of the development of personal, cultural, gender and sexual identity. The house or dwelling, as an artefact, serves as a source of materials, forms and objects with which to investigate notions of social convention, ritual, nostalgia and the unconscious.  (Home) is personally grounded in expressions of longing, loss, embodiment and the duality of protection versus isolation (Kate Murphy, Exhibition Catalogue).

Subject-objects picked from home and found in life, sculpt a series of stories waiting to be heard. These items are  the autobiographical grounds of subjectivity as it travels through neighbourhoods, streets, paths, and different zones of life activity.


The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong

“Identity in a Biscuit Tin” by Susie Boyt (Financial Times)

The Blurring of Art and Life by Allan Kaprow

Kate Murphy, http://katemurphyartwork.blogspot.ie/

Research highlights the importance of the artwork or object in helping people make connections and tell their own stories.  The research refers to the “symbolic potential” objects have, and uses psychosocial theories to explore this.  I have seen this theory in action when looking at artworks and objects with people who, when given permission to speculate and make open and personal responses, will make strong connections and often refer to their own life experiences and emotions.  The artwork or object is a thing outside of the individual and as such allows us to project inner thoughts and feelings onto it, talking about what is personal without the fear of direct exposure that being asked directly to talk about oneself might bring.  Telling stories about one’s life is often the basis of psychological therapies and I believe that gallery collections can work in this way too (Leisa Gray, What have art galleries got to do with our mental health?)

An art gallery is a permissive space for discussing human experience. It is a place to reflect upon personal and social relationships. As an environment for both speculation and discussion, it can broaden perspective and offer a supporting structure for considering ideas that can impact an overall sense of well being.

Through engagement with artworks, artists, gallery staff, and art materials art therapy participants are offered a focus within which to explore life situations. It is also an opportunity to experiment and explore different ways of understanding, through examining diverse frames of reference. An art gallery mediates new knowledge, it can also be a place to find one’s bearing, to gather thoughts and make sense of one’s position in life.


Photo: The Ark, An Arts and Culture Venue for Children, Dublin

In a recent article, “Art Galleries Should be Apothecaries for our Deeper Selves”  (The Guardian, October 10, 2013) philosopher Alain de Botton writes:

In my ideal museum, you would enter into the lobby and find a map showing galleries devoted to a range of topics with which we often need help: work, love, family, mortality, community, status, anxiety. In the gallery of love, for example, you might be shown Pisano’s Daphnis and Chloe, a deeply evocative reminder of the sense of gratitude and wonder with which most of us start relationships, but all too soon abandon (art is a superlative memory-bank for precious emotions that otherwise disappear). The gallery might then move us on to a Richard Long sculpture, where highly irregular and jagged stones were brought into harmony within a perfect circle, a metaphor for the way our own differences would ideally be accommodated in relationships.

Through such themed galleries, art would start to serve psychology in the same way it has served theology for centuries. A walk through a museum of art would amount to a structured encounter with a few of the emotions which are easiest for us to forget but life-enhancing to remember. Arranged in this way, museums of art would then be able to claim that they really had fulfilled that excellent but as yet elusive ambition of becoming substitutes for our cathedrals and churches in a rapidly secularising society.

Cork Exhibition

Photo: Living/Loss: The Experience of Illness in Art exhibition at The Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork, November 2012- March 2012.

Ideas for Making a Gallery a Therapeutic Space

The following are some ideas for using an art gallery as a therapeutic space:

1. Bring along portable art materials, i.e. sketch books, pencils, charcoal, graphite, markers, etc. These materials will be distributed to participants, for the purpose of writing down notes, responses, ideas, and drawings, etc.

2. Visit the art gallery ahead of time and find out about the exhibition you are going to see. Talk to gallery staff and research the artists, art mediums, and stories behind the artworks.

3. Decide what parts of the exhibition you are going to view, in relation to your scheduled time frame. You might select a few key pieces to discuss, in regards to the themes, titles, imagery or artist biographies represented. The artworks you view should relate to metaphors of your art therapy participants’ life experiences. These themes can be discussed in a conversational way, as they are examples of human experience that we all share. You might pre-determine some questions and reflections about the artworks, so that you are prepared to lead a discussion with your group.

4. Encourage everyone to write down notes about the exhibition and their responses to the artworks. This can be done through words and drawings. Any questions, reflections, opinions, etc. can also be included within participant’s sketchbooks.

5. Find a quiet place within the gallery to meet and talk about the exhibition. Many art galleries have public education rooms which can be booked for this purpose.

6. It is okay for participants not to like the artworks in a particular gallery.  An art gallery is a place to voice disagreement or controversy. It is important for people to have an opportunity to voice their opinion, as they may not have had positive experiences of asserting their point of view in the past.

7. Pay special attention to exhibition literature, as there may be text and images in gallery brochures, which will evoke discussion points.

8. Exhibition postcards, free magazines, etc. can be taken away as a souvenir of the gallery visit.

Photo: Image included in the article “Working on the Edge: Exploring the Role of an Art Therapist to that of an Artist in an Arts and Health Context – Similarities, Differences, Requirements.”  An article published in the Journal of the Association of Creative Arts Therapists (2011, Ireland) by John McHarg (Art Therapist), Marie Brett (Visual Artist) and Ed Kuczaj (Art Therapist and Head of the Department of Art Therapy and Continuing Visual Education at Crawford College of Art and Design, Cork).


1. What have art galleries got to do with our mental health? By Leisa Gray http://www.fullcirclearts.co.uk/features/what-have-art-galleries-got-to-do-with-our-mental-health/

2. Arts and Health Ireland

A website of arts and health information, news, case studies and research in Ireland.


3. Co-Founder of the Museum and Galleries Special Interest Group (British Association of Art Therapists) Sian Hutchinson’s website combines her work as an art therapist with arts and health consultation for museums and art galleries. She works under the name of ArtB (A Reason to Be).


Sian’s work in musueums and art galleries is profiled in a number of projects listed on her website. One of these at the Oriel Ynys Mon Gallery and Museum in Wales outlines some aims and outcomes of work within a gallery setting.


4. A new book entitled Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, is a component of Visual Art Therapy, a method of therapy where references to gallery based works of art are used as remedies for difficult life situations. A description of Art as Therapy is as follows:

It’s the authors’ contention that certain art works provide powerful solutions to our problems, but that in order for this potential to be released, the audience’s attention has to be directed towards it in a new way (which they demonstrate), rather than towards the more normal historical or stylistic concerns with which art books and museum captions are traditionally associated. The authors propose that the squeamish belief that art should be ‘for art’s sake’ has unnecessarily held back art from revealing its latent therapeutic potential.

This book involves reframing and recontextualising a series of art works from across the ages and genres, so that they can be approached as tools for the resolution of difficult issues in individual life.

The website linked to the publication of Art as Therapy is http://www.artastherapy.com/