Madness, Art, Dreams and Aperol Spritz converge in Venice for the 59. Biennale…

I have just returned from Venice, my soul filled to the brim with images, beauty, thoughts and inspiration. I was invited to speak at a one-day symposium on ‘the magic of madness’ that coincided with the opening of the 59th Venice Biennale titled ‘The Milk of Dreams.’ For a person deeply interested in all those words – magic, madness, dreams… even milk when it’s in a cappuccino or gelato – this was my idea of heaven. 

The jetty from which boatloads of tourists used to arrive from Venice to gape at the patients of the former ‘lunatic asylum’ on the island of San Servolo

The MADNICITY Pavilion, where the symposium took place, is situated on the site of a former insane asylum on the island of San Servolo. Three panels of leading voices in psychiatry, psychology, philosophy, critical theory and the arts discussed topics ranging from ‘the place of madness in society’ to the expansion of traditional concepts of ‘normality’ and ‘mental disorder’ to a more inclusive embrace of ‘mental diversity’. There was also some very academic philosophical stuff debated by an all-male panel of professors, but I wasn’t entirely able to follow that. I personally chose to stay on more familiar ground and talked about the madness of institutions, specifically prisons. (You can listen to the whole day of presentations here or just my talk starting at 3:52.50)

At one point, the Chair of our panel – Johnny Acton – asked us what we find most mad about society. For me, it is the fact that the ‘feminine’ in life – and before I get hauled up for being sexist or in some way discriminatory, can I make it clear that I am not talking about biological ‘men’ and ‘women’, nor even ‘male’ and ‘female’ genders. I am talking about archetypes, the feminine principle that is in each and every one of us to a greater or lesser degree. Coarsely, and therefore inevitably inaccurately put, we are talking the feminine/masculine dualisms of moon/sun, inner/outer, art/science, feelings/concepts… you get the picture hopefully. Ok, so where was I? Let me start that sentence again. In fact, let’s have a new paragraph too. 

To me, what’s most mad in society is that the ‘feminine’ is still ignored, dismissed, ridiculed or considered invalid in the face of the more tangible ‘masculine’. The left-brain, rigid logic of science with its need for proof, as I have frequently both observed and said, too often totters behind the more right-brain, unpredictable logic of intuition, dreaming, playing – all the stuff that can lead to creative genius or apparent ‘madness’. Women who lived by these rules used to be burned at the stake, locked up, or simply forced into subservience to men and masters. The island of San Servolo and the amazing installations under the title ‘LUNATICS’ bear witness to the some of the horrific past approaches both to madness and women. The thinking behind most of our systems – education, prison, medicine – are dominated by this ‘masculine’ thinking. And yet, common sense, vision, wisdom and truth are frequently born from the supposedly unprovable, inaccurate, fantastical, unreal phenomena of dreams, gut feelings, instinct. The world has paid a heavy price for playing down their innate value.

‘LUNATIC’ – one of ten collaborative installations by Dominik Lejman and Bianca O’Brien on San Servolo

But something is finally shifting. The world is becoming more fluid, less polarised. Boundaries are blurring. Humans are becoming less certain of themselves and bowing to the greater forces of nature and the big unknowns. This was all reflected both in the panel conversations and the art, the latter not least because Cecilia Alemani, unbelievably the first Italian woman to curate the Venice Biennale, ensured that 80% of artists featured were women or gender non-conforming. And the theme itself – The Milk of Dreams – appealed to symbolism, surrealism, fantasy and spirituality rather than the conceptualism of past years. Many of the big male names were there – Kiefer, Baselitz, Kapoor – but on the periphery, looking rather bombastic, egotistical… ‘out’.

Let’s see if I can make this clearer through a selection of pictures I took, unaware at the time that this was what I was seeing. Some are from the official Biennale pavilions of the Giardini and the Arsenale, others at collateral events and exhibitions around town.

Laetitia KY, Hair sculptures, Pavillon de la C^ote d’Ivoire. Interview here.
Malgorzata Mirga-Tas: Re-enchanting the world, Poland Pavilion
Can’t remember… one of the pavilions in the Giardini
Claire Tabouret: I am spacious singing flesh, Palazzo Cavanis
Francis Alÿs: The Nature of the Game, Belgium Pavilion, Giardini
Beyond: Emerging Artists, Palazzo Franchetti
Sonya Boyce: Feeling her way, Great Britain pavilion, Giardini – winner of the Golden Lion Prize for Best National Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2022
A foyer we stumbled into in a building on Campo Santo Stefano…
Anish Kapoor, Shooting into the corner (2008), Galleria dell’Accademia
From the Arsenale…
Just a beautiful staircase at Palazzo Cini

I could go on and on. But I’d be interested what themes you see in this microcosmic collection.

Altogether, it was an inspiring trip. Wonderful people, paintings, palazzos, piazzas, pizzas and of course the delicious Aperol Spritz to round up the day… simply the best in my book. Talking of which…

My book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, is still on course to be published in mid-July. Do SIGN UP TO MY NEWSLETTER for information about a book launch near you where you will be able to buy a signed copy or for any other news.

Let’s at least talk about it…

I know many people are finding plenty of reasons to slate Prince Harry at the moment: for his open criticism of his upbringing; for hypocrisy in privacy vs. publicity matters; for his ‘therapy speak’. 

I also know there is fierce resistance to what he is saying. After all, it flies in the faces of stiff-upper-lip Britishness and the Royal Family’s ‘play-the-game’ rules.

How about we put all judgment aside for a moment, and simply listen to – and hear – what he is trying to do. Because doesn’t it then become clear that he is trying to talk about some of the most important things that can affect us all? Things that haven’t been talked about nearly enough.

Unresolved trauma. 

Silence. 

And mental health.

No-one can accuse him of not knowing each of them intimately.

Prince William and Harry at their mother’s funeral in 1997

According to the leading charity, MIND, mental health issues went up by 20% between 1993 and 2014. Imagine the rate at which they are rising now, especially among the young. You just have to witness, as I recently have, a desperate twenty-something year old trying to access mental health provision in this country in order to see how woefully inadequate it is. And how much needs to be done.

From MIND

There is nothing new or wrong in recognising the potentially huge role parents and primary carers play in forming or, in some cases unfortunately, de-forming a child’s mental health. It’s not an attack; or blame. It’s just fact. So personally, I welcome Harry’s efforts to get us all talking about these things. And I can only recognise logic, truth and sense when he says:

“There is no blame. I don’t think we should be pointing the finger or blaming anybody, but certainly when it comes to parenting, if I’ve experienced some form of pain or suffering because of the pain or suffering that perhaps my father or my parents had suffered, I’m going to make sure I break that cycle so that I don’t pass it on, basically.

Or:

“It’s a lot of genetic pain and suffering that gets passed on anyway so we as parents should be doing the most we can to try and say: ‘You know what, that happened to me, I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.’”

People have been asking what ‘genetic pain’ is. I know the scientific fact-checkers at TED would have a lot to say about his use of the word ‘genetic’ in that context – they did about my single mention of it in my TEDx talk, which wasn’t even about genetic inheritance! He possibly means ‘generational’ pain, but, as I mentioned in last month’s blog, science often lags behind lived experience and the insights of other disciplines, so maybe his – and my – experiences will one day be proved to be genetically true as well.

I actually think that if more parents or grandparents learnt to ‘therapy speak’ about the hurt or trauma in their childhoods and lives, many destructive cycles would be broken. Of course it isn’t comfortable at the time. And yes, it can be extremely upsetting, especially if criticism of family members is voiced on a global platform. But feeling a need to talk openly and publicly is often a direct result of having been silenced. And the impact of silence on traumatic experiences is potentially devastating. It pushes raw, unprocessed emotions deeper into the psyche where, unexpressed, they fester like bandaged wounds deprived of the air that will heal them. And then the problems start. 

After over two decades of silence… of being silenced… Harry is now giving his wounds some ‘air-time’. And I hope the world will allow him to stumble and cock up royally (…sorry!) from time to time while he does his best to break new ground – just like his mother tried to do – and raise awareness of the insidious killer in our midst.

And what can we do to help the situation?

Maybe the first step is to start talking. And listening. Talking about things that have mattered… with your children and your grandchildren. With your parents and grandparents. With your wife, husband, friends. Because while silence may help you cope with something, it may not help those who come after.

So, talk about it… before it becomes too late. 

LINKS (as usual, a variety of viewpoints – some definitely not my opinion)

I talk about the impact of silence and lack of understanding surrounding intergenerational trauma in my TEDx talk – Facing the past to liberate the present

“The Me You Can’t See”.

Prince Harry appears to criticise way he was raised by his father – The Guardian

Prince Harry’s ‘Genetic Pain’ Comments Are Not Actually A Dig At Prince Charles – GRAZIA

Prince Harry’s ‘genetic pain’ is an insult to his grandmother. The Duke’s preoccupations with mental health and his parents reveal him to be as self-obsessed as any privileged millennial – The Telegraph

Prince Harry: I want to break cycle of pain for my children – BBC NEWS

Prince Harry says trauma of Diana’s death led him to use alcohol and drugs – The Guardian

What is genetic pain and can you inherit parental trauma? – The Telegraph

Meghan, Diana, drugs and therapy: what Harry said in Apple TV series – The Guardian