Rashid Johnson’s one-room installation at the South London Gallery, his first solo show in London, is at first glance a safe space for an imagined, and cliched, group therapy session to take place. Persian rugs, beds to recline on, mirrors, plants.
Peace and calm has been entirely disrupted though – the visiting minds aren’t calm at all or else they wouldn’t be there. We see this in black, aggressive paintings on display around the room, ugly paint spills on the rugs, broken glass and three of the four beds at impractical angles. There seems to be a struggle between the aim of the soothing artefacts and the visitor who imposes his/her own problems, darkness and irrepressible mess on the objects.
Not one for animal activists with all that zebra skin on display, Ossian Ward, in Time Out’s review of Shelter, points out that Sigmund Freud would probably have been a fan of the exotic beds. The luxury of therapy seems quite a Western idea to me but I’m sure every society practises it whether on commercial or community levels. Johnson himself was thinking about the post-colonial former Prime Minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, when he made the beds.
Best known for his “post-black” portrait photography (i.e. not all about race), Johnson has also worked with audio, video and sculpture with subjects ranging from homeless men to African-American politicians and their clothes.
Rashid Johnson may want everyone to be able to have access to time on the therapist’s couch but there’s no interactive element. The South London Gallery staff won’t allow you to tread on the Persian carpets or lie on the one bed that’s the right way up and stare up at the sky. This is art after all.
The blurb on the South London Gallery’s leaflet explained Rashid Johnson’s starting point as ‘an imagined society in which psychotherapy is a freely available drop-in service, accessible to all through group sessions’. It reminded me of an Observer article ‘Can anyone save our high streets?’ from six months or so ago. Six commentators and personalities were asked what they would do to save high streets; the likes of Lorraine Candy (editor of Elle) and Jane Shepherdson (chief exec of Whistles) of course imagined boutiques for homegrown fashion talent and bespoke shopping experiences. But it wasn’t all about spending.
Alain de Botton’s big idea was to make a trip to the psychotherapists as normal as the hairdressers. Simply give the therapists a spot next door to the usual shops and a big sign to make a statement. He points out that now we can shop online our high streets could become places to get things done that can’t be fixed digitally – things involving our mind or body. I like this idea – other ‘self-improvement’ activities could be sacrificed once every couple of weeks if it was affordable enough. Some statistic about us being happier at work or school once our mind has been saved could be found to justify spending some of the government’s money. And – crucially – we might all start dropping hints about therapy at any given moment like Woody Allen characters.
Gimme (or Gimmie) Shelter by The Rolling Stones was written by Keith Richards (probably) about feeling vulnerable when things like the Vietnam War, natural disasters and love affairs were going on around him. Richards could have probably done with a lie down on a zebra skin-covered day bed.
Rashid Johnson: Shelter is showing at the South London Gallery, 65-67 Peckham Road until 25th November 2012. Admission is free.