She Says She Has Anxiety, They Say It’s Just A Phase

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It’s quarter to seven on a Friday. I sit listless in the passenger seat of my sisters 4 door sassy sedan, which we think in its past life was a basset hound; all stubbornness and no motivation. We clunk and sputter in silence to the Alternator Centre, where tonight, Pierre Leichner’s opening exhibition entitled “They Say She is Bipolar and He’s Got ADD: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Text Re-revised And Related Texts” opens to the public. It’s a mouthful to say, and I bet you all my pocket and couch change that you can’t say it five times fast, but we are both excited to attend, even though looking at the two of us, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

“How are you?” I ask Kelsi, my sister and co-contributor/photographer-extraordinaire/high-five expert. And while on this may seem a pretty simplistic, everyday run-of-the-mill question, so on-the-surface-mundane to the likes of something such as “pass the butter?”, to the two of us, it is a required question that is riddled with layers.

“I’m okay,” she says. They are two words, but they are deep and carry multiple and complex things. Much like the content that Leichner’s series of art sculpted from the DSM.

I don’t know anyone these days that isn’t touched by someone or some incident of mental health, though you really have to get to know a person, it seems, to find this out. Mental Illness carries a stigma that is literally like that large grey mammal with a trunk in the room; you know it’s there, you know it exists, but it’s swept under a living room rug along with dusty bunnies and spare bobby pins or pennies that you’re too lazy to pick up off the floor because it’s a subject that is touchy, taboo and just not talked about.

But why?

For my sister and I, mental illness is about as talked about as Justin Bieber’s relationship status between two LG’s. Kelsi has a Social Anxiety Disorder. It means she has an extremely difficult time in social situations, which often makes it tricky for her to leave the house, carry on a conventional minimum wage jobs that are in keeping with your early 20’s, and going to class at the college proves to be a constant, panic attack-y uphill struggle. So when I ask her how she is doing, I’m not just asking for shits and giggles. It’s a loaded question, and a necessity.

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Art has many functions, but for artist researcher, Pierre Leichner, it is a tool for change. Pierre has dedicated 30 years of his life to psychiatry, and spent the previous 10 attaining his BFA at Emily Carr, his MA at Concordia. He left his practice 3 years ago to work on an artistic expression that carries significant, social commentaries that cater to social justice issues. His exhibition is a compilation of various Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals (DSM) that seeks to create a commentary, a critique on the state of Mental Health these days that, he says, grew out of a dissatisfaction with the system itself.

“I wanted to change the system [of mental health]. But I needed to get out of the system to speak out. [It] was so politicized—you can’t speak out from within it.”

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Pierre’s work does exactly that. Fusing his artistic vision with his knowledge of psychiartrity, Peirre has crafted amazing pieces, intricately sculpted from found text of different DSM books. His pieces vary, are at once humuours as they are weighty. The room, and the mood of those in it, is a grab bag of emotions, as the opening exhibition drew a large crowd, young and old. Pierre circulates the room, watching spectators as they pour over his sculptures, laughing as a group of young girls grabs hold of the DSM Training Guide Dogs, which are literally stuffed toy dogs with DSM books tied to their backs. They are meant to be your friend throughout the exhibition, but are also commentaries on how health care professionals are “trained” to act and think a certain way within the system. The room rattles as the toy dogs spin and sputter on plastic wheels behind their owners, who cart them from series to series, table to table.

For those not familiar with the DSM, it is a manual that is published by the American Psychiatric Association. It is a globalized classification system for mental illness, and operates as a reference guide for professionals in the health care system to treat and diagnose people with disorders.

The problem being, of course, that it is a universalizing tool that doesn’t always speak to the complex individual. You have a label, and it’s stuck with you, influencing how you think, act and feel, but it doesn’t accurately describe.

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Case in point: amidst the deep and thought provoking work near the entrance of the Alternator is a basket full of DSM Fortune Cookies. Kelsi and I crack into a couple and examine our fortunes like we’ve just galvanized an entire plate of sushi at Momo’s. The idea behind the cookies is simplistic but effective: you pull out your fortune and read what your disorder is, then go and look it up in a nearby DSM. I pulled Trichotillomania, an impulse control disorder that DSM-IV classifies as a compulsive urge to pull out (and sometimes eat) one’s hair. Kelsi pulls out Child and Parent Related Issues, which is self-explanatory and maybe, sometimes, all too relevant.

We chuckle at first at the absurdity behind our “fortunes”, then grow silent because it’s all too telling: we’ve been “classified” by the DSM now, and we’re stuck with our disorders. We watch as two visitors open theirs, frown and throw theirs away in embarrassment, and later, one crumpling hers in her fist, muttering something along the lines of “not liking” what she got.

Still, the majority of the work carries heavy material. At one table, Kelsi and I become absorbed in the beautiful and intricate carvings of three large DSM manuals with open pit diamond mine renderings. When we asked him about the process of undertaking such a piece, Pierre smiled, knowingly, nodding at the lengthy time and work that went into his creations.

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“I [start] by putting the book under pressure with a clamp and just begin to chissle away, starting small and getting larger and larger.” No drills, no frills; just time, patience and a lot of excavation. In particular, we were caught by the beauty and fluidity of his “Open Pit Diamond Mine Excavation” series, in which thick manuals are intricately carved into text to mimic the scraped away layered landscape of mines. Your eye moves from one open pit DSM to the next, and the movement of the eye takes you to a mirror propped at the end of the table, reminding you that mental illness isn’t something “out there”, or as simplistic as words on paper, but that it could be you, the person over your shoulder, or in the same room that is directly or indirectly affected.

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Others carry positive themes, such as hi s “1000 DSM Origami Cranes”. A video installment straddles the wall next to the single line of cranes, which have been folded out of pages torn from manuals, in which Leichner, in a public workshop, shows how to fold origami, which is a “gesture of compassion and engagement”, a cathartic act that takes content that is limiting and oppressive and into a content that is transformed.

And maybe that’s what drew Kelsi and I to this exhibition; the transformation of how we think about disorders in society is picking up steam. Mental Illness is rampant in our family, and it’s never been something we’ve been embarrassed to talk about, but it’s something that embraces people when we’re open about it. Exhibitions like Pierre’s operate like catalysts for sparking dialogues that are necessary. Even within the past few years, public discussion about Mental Illness has become increasingly louder (i.e. Bell Talks this February past). His interdisciplinary approach to creating hybrids of science and art evoke artwork that is both social commentary and beauty.

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Pierre Leichner’s exhibition runs from April 5th to May 18th. For more info, you can visit his website at http://www.leichner.ca/index.html

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