Transition | Marsi van de Heuvel

Wed, August 29, 2018 to Sat, September 29, 2018

By Matthew Freemantle

Places of transition, whether physical or otherwise, are somehow captivating. Tunnels are a case in point. We are more often thrilled or terrified by tunnels than ambivalent. What is it that moves us? Perhaps it is that we don’t know what we will emerge into on the other side. Is it that we feel suspended, unhinged, neither here nor there; in a word: free? The sense of mood and mystery is deepened by the use, over the centuries, of tunnels as secret conduits, escape routes, hiding places. Tunnels often take us towards the light, out of the darkness.

Except that sometimes it is the other way around. They can be eerie, claustrophobic. In the wrong part of town they can be dangerous. There is a sense of placelessness that works for some and not for others. The unknown is not always benign. Some see hope at the end of the tunnel. Some don’t.

Gephyrophobia is the fear of bridges - specifically, crossing them - but applies to tunnels, too. Advancements in engineering have only served to deepen those afflictions. Tunnels bore under oceans and penetrate mountain ranges. These days, it is considered casual to be transported 250 kilometers per hour 300 meters below sea level from one landmass to another. In spite of the conditions, we are likely to feel quite entitled to complain if a shudder of turbulence caused our cappuccino to spill.

Wormholes in space are said to be tunnel shaped and capable of creating shortcuts for long journeys across the universe. There is robust scientific theory in place to support the idea that these tunnels can be traversed and survived. Cue fear and wonder. And soon, possibly, yawns. But before it is performed, we will examine this possibility like a toddler with a new set of keys. We will want to know until we know. Our fascination with tunnels, passages and thoroughfares is bound to this evergreen curiosity. We don’t yet know, so we can hope.

Few places are as tunnelled or as poignantly metaphorical as hospitals. Long corridors end in swing doors that open to bright or gloomy beyonds. Patients burst in and glide out. For some, the passage is an abyss. Being as they often are spaces within which people cling to life, the architecture and the chosen artwork can have a profound effect on the unwell. And yet as often as not, these spaces are lifeless, bleak and in some cases a type of aesthetic punishment, more likely to demoralise than revitalise.

Visual artists, who trade in the effectiveness of aesthetics, can feel this lack most keenly. Those more enlightened institutions have long recognized this, too, and the notion that art might enhance recuperation dates almost as far back as hospitals do. In the Middle Ages, hospitals might be festooned with artworks. Across Europe over the centuries, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and El Greco have all exhibited in hospitals. Scores of studies have been commissioned to examine the effect of art on patients with generally coherent and mostly vindicating results.

A recent Harvard study found that Alzheimer's and dementia patients retained their ability to create art long after speech and language had diminished. Art therapy is a widely practiced discipline with reams of research behind it, but the focus is more often on the benefits of participation rather than observation. The jury is still to some extent out on the nature of the latter relationship. Where earlier studies posited that patients’ emotional states were amplified by the art they engaged with - this roughly meant less Goya or Picasso, more Manet - more recent academic findings have suggested the type of work and extent of abstraction matters far less than the effect of art as a positive distraction.

As grounded and perfunctory as that may appear to make the effect of art sound, it might also mean that at least some of the work that art does is happening whether we actively engage with it or not. Working in the shadows of the subconscious, these expressions of devotion to whatever inspired them can fortify us tacitly, like knowing glances from beyond.

In this context, artworks can be more than positive distractions; they can be tunnels, too - portals, escape routes and passages that lead towards an opening, at once ominous and benign.