Interview by Tali Wertheimer
Combining deadpan earnestness with slapstick humor and a fascination with the absurd, artist Stuart Ringholt’s work takes many forms, from performance, video, and sculpture to collaborative workshops. Ringholt explores mental illness, fear, and embarrassment by positioning himself and his participants in absurd situations and amateur self-help groups that he describes as “education through feeling.”
For dOCUMENTA (13), Ringholt presents Anger Workshops (2008), a participatory work in the form of a group-therapy session. Those in the group are invited to express their anger with, then their love for, each other. In TKTKTK, Ringholt writes about the work:
“Groups are offered the opportunity to lose inhibition and express their anger using voice and movement to the sound of very loud house music. This phase runs for five minutes. In the following phase, participants consider ‘love’ and express it using statements such as ‘I am sorry if I have hurt you’ and ‘I love and respect you’ to the gentle and soft sounds of Mozart. The group then gently embraces each other and hugs [for] another for three minutes. After the activity, the group sits and discusses their experience.”
During the workshops, the room is closed to public viewing although the sound of the workshops can be heard outside its walls. When the workshops are not running, the doors are opened and visitors can walk into a large empty, carpeted room. A monitor plays AUM (2007), an abridged version of a film showing how the workshops are practiced.
Performa’s Tali Wertheimer caught up with the artist between sessions at dOCUMENTA.
Tali Wertheimer: Where did the idea for the Workshop come from?
Stuart Ringholt: Bhagwan [Shree Rajneesh], or Osho, as he was also known, was an Indian ascetic who created the Aum meditation. It is an active group meditation whereby you get angry for a day, a whole day, then loving for a day, sad for a day, sexy for a day, laugh for a day and on it goes. There was an article in Playboy [about Aum] in the ’70s and a journalist labeled Osho and his followers a sex cult because on the day people were sexy, it turned into an orgy. The article unfairly represented the weeklong meditation, which to this day remains radical to my mind.
After Osho died, Veeresh, a devotee of Osho, created the three-hour Aum meditation as a gift and memorial to Osho. It is this shorter Aum that is currently practiced and involves experiencing all of the emotions, such as love and anger, for 20 minutes each. The Anger Workshops were developed in 2006 from my experience of the Aum. These workshops are very much ‘baby steps’ for the community and run for 45 minutes. You get angry for five minutes and then loving for five minutes and sit and discuss. They promote the Aum.
At then end of my session in the Anger Workshop, someone in the group asked, “What makes this art?” Meaning, how does it relate to art historical practices?
If a gallery visitor gets angry or questions a seemingly non-artistic event playing out, I am happy. Many visit a museum expecting to see paintings on the wall and when they come across an Anger Workshop, they have to accept otherness; this is what’s important, because to accept otherness in every moment is to accept compassion and love.
This said, sound and participation are prevalent in this dOCUMENTA, and the work contributes to this debate. Performance and Minimalism are also historical markers. The timber-clad exterior of the workshop room acts as a giant speaker of types with sound exiting the roofless room (think Judd with amp). Minimalism was about what was inside the sculpture and outside, and this dichotomy plays out many decades later in these workshops. I split the audience into two groups; the participating sound-makers and the passive listeners. Earlier today, the alarm went off in the museum due to the sound vibration.
The relationship with minimalism is only tertiary and a collateral effect of the work. The primary motivation for this work has been to not work with synthetic materials but rather to create something inside the body. This is carried out by a series of compressions, which, ironically, is the domain of the traditional arts. Think metal, think paper, [both of] which are a compression of some kind. A potter compresses clay at the wheel and a child melds paper-mache. I continue in this tradition, albeit working with our emotional selves. The anger you release for five minutes in the workshop is very dense and is equivalent to an entire month’s worth of anger. It’s a compression of lived experience. You compress the anger individually and compress the love in pairs. Hugging for five minutes in the workshop may be the longest hug you’ve ever had and literally bringing the hearts so close [to each other] creates a compression. I encourage further compression by asking participants to breathe in unison with their partner while hugging, and this rise and fall of the breath further compresses the heart organs.
You perform two or three times daily during dOCUMENTA. How did today’s workshops go?
Very well. I just worked with a large family, four or five kids. Eight- and ten-year-olds. They got angry for a minute; they thought they were in Disneyland. When it was time to hug, two of the kids, a little boy and little girl, went into a complete panic. The boy quickly turned to his dad and hugged him.
Generally speaking, people leave the workshop smiling happily, but there was a workshop where several people stormed out during the discussion. A young woman thought the workshop was ‘fake’ and didn’t enjoy getting angry or hugging. A young artist-psychiatrist took offense at my idea of creating something inside her body and also [suggested] that the workshop could be dangerous for some. Another in the group took offense to me touching her while she was hugging. There were some other minor grievances also.
That must be exhausting for you to deal with two or three times a day.
It’s quite tearful with people’s stories, so it’s quite exhausting. People release emotions related to the death of a father, death of a mother. The hugging reminds people of their mother, so it’s serious business when one young Italian guy shares his story.
Has your gallerist participated in a workshop?
It was good for my gallerist to do it.
What did he scream?
He got really angry- he wouldn’t mind if I told you. He was upset with a client, a mining magnate who is also mayor of a small town in outback Australia. The guy was bragging about his wealth the same day a boy died of blood poisoning from an infection because there was apparently no money for a resident doctor in his town. He’d been carrying his anger around. He was really upset. After that he hugged a young woman and when the workshop was over she hugged him again, which doesn’t happen often. And they hung out later. He felt like he knew her already. The workshop brings strangers together and they depart as friends. It was lovely to witness.
Do you feel like the workshop is evolving during dOCUMENTA? Since it’s being performed routinely, do you feel like the work is changing?
A friend of Josh’s [Milani, of Milani Gallery, who represents the artist in Brisbane] did the workshop and suggested that I get people to meditate on their anger longer before we start, and I adopted this advice. Health professionals who participated have also made recommendations which have been adopted. I have also begun encouraging participants to write me their thoughts in the weeks later.
The hope is that they take away this lesson of how to express anger in a useful way.
One guy who did the workshop said he doesn’t have a place to get angry anymore since he sold his car. He wants to build a big helmet to scream into.
Society tells us that anger is wrong, that we aren’t allowed to get angry. I don’t think that’s a good thing. Anger shouldn’t be censored that way. We need space to get angry alone, somewhere anger can be transformed.
Stuart Ringholt’s Anger Workshops run for the duration of dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany. New Works opens at Milani Gallery on August 9; Circles Passing opens at the Institute of Modern Art on August 10. Both in Brisbane, Australia.
All photos courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.