Category Archives: art
There’s a strange social narrative surrounding bipolar depression, formerly known as “manic depression.” The sickness is often associated with artistic types, as many famous artists had (or are thought to have had) bipolar depression: Sylvia Plath, van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, etc. Sometimes artists themselves perpetuate the idea that the illness helps fuel their art. There’s even a very interesting book, Touched with Fire, on this subject that I really want to finish reading someday.
As a person who sometimes makes art and is also bipolar depressive, this narrative annoys the shit out of me. When I was in the hospital I journaled a lot about how frustrating and dangerous this romanticizing is. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, and sure, it’s totally possible that the boundless energy that comes with a manic phase could result in a lot of work getting done. For me though, mania also gave me panic, paranoia, and a complete inability to focus that energy on any one thing. And the thing about mania is that you can’t have it without the depression. So, I get to go from being unable to get anything done because I’m hopped up on mania to not being able to do anything because I’m so depressed I can’t even function.
Despite the fact that sometimes mania feels good because at least it’s not depression, bipolar depression is still not a good or functional disease, and it doesn’t lend itself well to getting shit done. Any and all art I am able to create is in spite of my illness, not because of it.
During my hospital stay, I was worried that the amount of art I was churning out would somehow reinforce the idea that bipolar depression and creativity are linked. I made more art in the week and a half I was there than I have in the rest of the year combined. But being in a mental hospital is not quirky or cute or fun. The only real reason it was more conducive to creativity for me is because there was literally nothing else to do. I didn’t have my phone, there were no computers, and we had limited access to phones or televisions or even radios. From the time we woke up to an hour or two before lights out we were either in group/individual therapy or eating as a group. We spent our entire days in the group room which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the only room where we were allowed pens, pencils, and crayons. I had the time, safe space, and tools to spend entire days making art. It was a crucial aspect of my recovery and in no way motivated by my illness itself.
I’m very proud of the art I made there and am happy to share it now, knowing that it’s a sign of my recovery rather than my illness.
I’ve been glancing over images from Yasujiro Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962). His compositions tell all these terse, self-contained stories through line, color, and lighting—stories about middle-class life in postwar Japan, about all the pain (and incidental comedy) inherent in the very concept of “family.” Stories about disappointment, and the impossibility of happiness without first some compromise and heartbreak.
Between the placidity of Ozu’s frames and the frustrations of his characters, An Autumn Afternoon started reminding me of American painter Edward Hopper. As with Ozu, much of Hopper’s work consists of understated tragedy. Both men situate their characters in low-key milieux: modest rooms, taverns, street corners. And despite their gloomy implications, both Ozu’s swan song and Hopper’s paintings (like Chop Suey, above) abound with visual playfulness, never giving in entirely to misery.
“In the end, we spend our lives alone,” opines this drunken old man, a former schoolteacher from An Autumn Afternoon. “All alone.” Both of these artists, separated by decades and the Pacific Ocean, single out solitude as a constant of the human condition. Their figures are enshrouded by darkness, and that darkness is offset by harsh lighting elsewhere in these frames. This old man—in the twilight of his life, left with nothing but a noodle shop and a resentful daughter—is downcast, wistful, at rest. Same goes for this lonely woman in cloche and coat, pausing over a cup of coffee in Hopper’s Automat. They’ve turned their emotions inward and resigned themselves to loneliness.
Each of these shots is a study of body language, of the gestures and poses through which melancholy manifests itself. Poor Michiko (Shima Iwashita), informed that her would-be beau is already engaged, slouches silently just like the half-dressed traveler in Hopper’s Hotel Room. Their contexts are totally different: Michiko’s suppressing a wave of emotions in front of her father and brother, whereas Hopper’s subject is in the thrall of a more abstract lethargy. But they share the same hands-down, head-down posture and inscrutably blank face. Both Ozu and Hopper integrate these physical expressions of sadness into the mise-en-scène, letting the disappointment of their characters ripple out across the frame.
[Hopper paintings courtesy of “Bert Christensen’s Cyberspace Gallery.”]