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Joe Mc visits the Damien Hirst room at Tate Britain

'Mother and Child. Divided. London 1993' was the first piece of work I saw by Damien Hirst. You might recall it consisted of a cow and her calf dissected, then pickled in formaldehyde. I was revolted by it and hadn't a clue what it was about. A mate who came along with me to the exhibition said something along the lines that the artist was responding to all those who talked about an inner life. And that this 'opening up' was a way of saying 'look that's all there is inside'.

About an hour later out on the street the pickled cow and her offspring were still bouncing around in the meadows of my mind, along with my friend's interpretation and my own beliefs. I felt myself getting steadily angrier. Then I realised that it had been a long time since a piece of art had provoked such emotion. And thought 'nice one' and from then on had the feeling that maybe I had 'got' something of what Hirst was on about. And even started to look forward to new work.

Then, last Friday, I found myself in the Damien Hirst Room at Tate Britain The contents were interesting. Sort of. But it was on the way out that I noticed a carefully mounted and captioned photograph depicting a rat-like grinning adolescent who was holding what at first I took to be a bloated waxwork head of a portly elderly gentleman. Drawing closer, I realised that this was actually a severed human head. The title - 'With Dead Head' - explained everything.

Please don't let me turn into Melanie flipping Philips of the Daily Mail with her vigorous espousal of values reminiscent of John Major's 'back to basics.' And I'm not going down the road of 'this isn't art'. Because I don't have a problem with that. I hate it but clearly see it as a work of art, Those who curate at the Tate obviously see it as a valued artistic acquisition. And I can't deny that Hirst has me again electrified with questions.

But there is something else going on here. Something nasty. Part of my anger comes from an element that Hirst's necrophilia shares with other ghoulish sensationalism on the museum and gallery scene. For example, the mostly excellent Wellcome Foundation openly advertises that they have an enviable collection of shrunken heads. They are obviously targeting the prurient juvenile schoolboy market.

But here again there is a mind-numbing lack of respect for people outside of the Daily Mail zone of acceptable humanity - i.e. the very heart of the heart of 'middle England.' Hirst's severed head looks like an elderly bloke very much the worse for wear and more likely to be a homeless person than a city gent or similar. The shrunken heads in other collections are not British. So is that alright then? Isn't there a certain hypocrisy behind the expectation that we are going to be heart broken by each British soldier who falls in today's war zones, while other remains - who at one time were parents, lovers and probably a lot like you and me when all is said and done - can become objects of crass entertainment?

It's this violation of any notion of equality and the equal right for respect that gets my goat here. But the anger intensifies when I think that neither Tates Britain nor Modern have ever acquired, for their permanent collections, a piece of work from artists who emerged from the Disability Arts Movement.

Colin Hambrook, Kit Wells, Ruth Bailey, Hanne Olsen, Elspeth Morrison and many others have, through the years, done invaluable work in exposing and valuing the work of artists who boldly explore the experience of disability. This website is a glowing testimony to that. Pallant House in Chichester is also ploughing ahead engaging with and promoting Outsider Art.

The vast amount of money that must have been lavished on the photograph of the ghoulish artist and the absence of any work done by artists from the Disability Arts movement, whose work so often radically questions society, are a clear testimony to the values of those who move and shake at the Tate and the British Art Establishment.

Posted by Anonymous, 6 September 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 7 September 2010

Joe Mc in search of '5 Rhythms'

In the last post, I mentioned the power of music in lifting the vibe and helping you get through when it's difficult to do anything much at all.

Listening to music seems key to what unlocked a lifetime's reticence when it came to making art. But the door had many locks and needed other keys as well: dance and movement.

At the Jules Thorn Recovery Centre, mentioned in my first post of this blog, there was a wonderful session devoted to moving mindfully to music. Some of my mates sniggered when I told them about these sessions. Probably because not having a very elegant body, I would never be associated with a love of dancing. Bollocks.

The two wonderful facilitators of this session, had us listening to some great music - sometimes slow and calming other times funky beats what would make anyone get their ass on the dancefloor - and moving in ways that were right for each of us and our different physicalities. It was the opposite of having to conform to some dance class rules of what was right. In the end, I now spend as much time as I need moving to music. It's another one of those things which seems so simple, yet can be a powerful antidote to the darkest blues.

My experience at Jules Thorn, has made me want to look into a dance and movement practice devised by Gabrielle Roth, called the 5 Ryhthms. I haven't done so yet. But here's a couple of interesting websites for anyone interested.

5Rhythms on Wikipedia

A 5Rhythms site

Posted by Anonymous, 2 August 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 2 August 2010

Joe Mc and the food of love

I mentioned the other day that my recent recovery from a year-long period of severe depression was helped by making art. This is still working for me. And many friends and colleagues are remarking that I seem better in myself than they have found in a long time.

I'm feeling so well at the moment that I have decided to slowly, over the coming months, reduce my intake of anti-psychotic drugs (currently Quetiapine) to zero. In the past, I have done this myself. And, sometimes, too abruptly. Things have gone so well this year that I'm not risking it and have asked for support from my medical/ mental health team. This has been accepted.

I fully believe that anti-psychotic medication can be helpful in getting through a crisis. But my own experience reinforced by reading The Myth of the Chemical Cure: A Critique of Psychiatric Drug Treatment by Joanna Moncrief has convinced me that these drugs are not desirable in the long term.

More of this soon. But, for the meantime, I can't say it loudly enough how important it is when healing to keep the vibe up and do all you can to feel good in yourself. It sounds like a rather bland self-evident thing to say. But it is something so easily forgotten when you're not well.

On this theme, I thought it would be cool to share some of my favourite music with you. Here is my current 'top five'. This probably changes on a weekly basis. But these are some of the sounds that work for me when I can hardly get my arse off the floor. I'd be delighted if you posted-in your own 'top fives'. It seems like a good thing to share around.

Queen Latifah 'Just Another Day'
 Long before the bling and Hollywood called, Queen Latifah was a great rap artistist.

Handel's 'Lascia ch'io pianga'
 (Let me weep) sung by Philippe Jaroussky. I reckon many a hypogonad may be endowed with a colatura-type voice. Philippe Jaroussky - not a hypognad - has such a range and also the virtuosity to use it.

Mary J Blige singing on George Michael's 'As'
 Like many Irish folk of my generation I have deep devotion for Mary. Mary J that is.

Amadou and Maryam 'Je pense a toi' (I think of you)
 I LOVE music from Mali in general. From Amadou and Maryam to the late Ali Farka Toure to the magnificent Oumou Sangare, I find so much of this music, moving, uplifting and, above all, healing. 

Jacques Brel 'Amsterdam'
 For those days when you feel totally fucked up, it's good to listen to someone who's definitely been there. It's a shame that Brel's songs suffered such unspeakably insipid English interpretations.

Posted by Anonymous, 26 July 2010

Last modified by Anonymous, 31 July 2010

Joe Mc tells the truth for a change ...

The writer and performer, Julie McNamara, once advised me to 'never let the truth get in the way of a good story'. Maybe it is ironic that, with her recent humdinger of a play Crossings, Julie went on to spin a heady weave of stories fearlessly uncovering terrifying truths about the history of the world. As John Keats put it :

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' [1]

Wow! He wrote that to a grecian urn! Do you reckon he was bipolar? Good job the anti-psychotic pushers weren't around at the time to clip his wings isn't it?

Anyway, I have to confess to following the above advice yesterday when announcing my immediate flouncing out of Facebook. I have not done so. But this is only because I realised that in the 6 to 8 weeks i've been using the service, there's a horde of new friends, refound and rekindled old friends, not to mention dating opportunities ... that you just can't turn your back on. Can you? So I'm staying for a while to make sure I have the necessary contact details to keep in touch with this lot in my imminent exile from social networking.

Again, I don't know whet it is about all these wonderful high technology tools which are supposed to be revolutionising our lives. It just seems that there have never been such sophisticated and user-friendly communication possibilities at out disposal. And yot we seem to be living in a world where communication is disintegrating at the same pace as the ozone layer. Is it possible that one of the reasons for this is the unprecedented amounts of time that more and more people (bearing in mind that a huge amount of people have no access to such luxuries) are spending, drifting down the hallucinatory corridors of lalaland? We are drowning in a slimy sea of moronic entertainment. I think i'd prefer Quetiapine. Just joking - as anything is better than that. Unless its used to help get us through a crisis.

[1] Ode to a Grecian Urn

Posted by Anonymous, 22 July 2010

Last modified by Anonymous, 27 July 2010

Joe Mc on cutting off his book to spite his face ...

Today is the day i say farewell to Facebook. I only went on it a few weeks ago because it was a way of catching up with the humanitarian flotilla which was heading for Gaza. The BBC is so unreliable in reporting on the Middle East, that it was good to be hearing directly from people on the beleaguered boats.

But then I stayed on. Ended up with over 100 Facebook friends. And a squillion messages telling me whatt they had for dinner that day and sharing an incontinent quantity of visual data when a couple of well-chosen images apiece would probably have sufficed.

Hands up! I was as bad as the worst of them. Checking to see who was online and getting sucked into all sorts of sharing that was often good but sometimes inappropriate.

I have no right to regale you dao-dudes with ranting and raving about the surveillance society and the dangers of surrendering the world about us for the virtual dreamspace flickering at us on a screen. You will all have your own opinions about this and probably think that i'm being a bit of a fucking prat flouncing on about this. And you're probably right.

Anyway, the remit of this blog is to talk about my making art as a non-artist kind of artist. Well, since my recent Facebooking, I've noticed that the output of paintings and drawings which was flowing in the earlier months of this year was in a sharp decline. Say no more. I got art to make.

Posted by Anonymous, 21 July 2010

Last modified by Anonymous, 27 July 2010

Joe Mc on how he came to like the Beatles

I wish to say thank you to a dear friend who played me some old Beatles numbers recently, and made me realise what a tosser I had been for the past half-century to have been completely indifferent towards them. This was the first time I found myself enjoying their music. And out of respect for the Fabulous Four I feel a need to explain why they didn't quite do it for me previously.

Back in Ireland – the unoccupied part – in the late sixties, the possibilities of independent music exploration were extremely limited. Very few of us had record players and, even if you did, a vinyl album cost more than a week's wages. There were great opportunities to hear live music, but recorded material was very much the monopoly of the emerging music, radio and television corporations. Having been miraculously incarnated as a lifelong anti-capitalist, a lot of the stuff they promoted on the mainstream media was held with a certain suspicion.

But there were darker reasons. The Beatles and other mainstream pop stars had the deep devotion of the 'terminally normal' aka most of the other lads in school. Let me make it absolutely clear that I hold no sulking lifelong grudges against these guys who are mostly now all totally forgettable paragons of respectability in my home town. The worst any of them ever did was to give you a rather playful ragging for not attending the mandatory sports events on offer. It was more the way there seemed to be an unspoken understanding at play that yours truly was better kept at a long safe distance from their mainstream world.

So it was the music that was unpopular with them which seemed to call me at the time – Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen and Pentangle to name but a few – and offer a feeling of 'outsideness' which was to be a lifetime companion. This is another theme that I feel is important in my emerging artwork and I'd like to return to this sometime later.

So, the cold shoulder of the rugged rugby lads was distressing but far more challenging was the sweaty hand and prosthetic leather strap extension of the teachers in whose care our parents had placed us; the misleadingly entitled 'Christian Brothers'.

I rather stupidly remarked recently to an old friend that at least they were only slapping and not sexually molesting us. She replied somewhat scornfully, "that's because you went to one of their middle class schools, where they wouldn't dare touch you, in that way."

It's beyond the remit of this blog to share with you my total revulsion and condemnation of the generation of paedophiles who beyond any doubt have irreparably damaged the mental health of a generation of lost children. But, in these posts, I am trying to explore what lead me to find joy and comfort in images of peace and kindness.

Well it started back then with the fear that all of us shared – both the marginals such as myself and the mainstream crew – of the daily infliction of physical and,by extension, psychological pain for the most trivial and unjustifiable of reasons.

There were very few exceptions among the 'Christian' Brethren, save for one lovely primary teacher - Brother C – who was probably creatively bonkers himself and who departed from the uninspired curriculum to teach us how to sing in sean nos style (a style of acapella traditional Irish singing). I will never forget him telling us that if were to go anywhere vocally we had to 'make ourselves ugly'. Advice that could have come from a master class in camp cabaret from the likes of Liza Minelli herself. Actually about the only useful lesson in the whole 14 years with the brothers.

To the rest of them I would like to say that I wish them no harm – in this world or any other - as life has taught me to reject revenge and contempt, if only for the preservation of better mental health. But 'brothers' if ever you stumble across this page, let me just ask you to take a minute and go to the mirror. Look yourselves in the eye and try to remember more innocent days, the time before your 'vocation' summoned you to enlighten innocent children with your superior knowledge. Yeah, do us this one favour, try hard to remember that time in your life before you lost your humanity.

Posted by Anonymous, 15 July 2010

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 16 July 2010

Joe McConnell on the kindness of strangers

In the last post and chorus, I mentioned that for some time now i can't stop making art. That's true. Now for as long as I can remember, i've been into drawing - pretentiously daydreaming that i was turning 14 years of schoolbooks into latter day illuminated manuscripts. But never taking it any further. It was a total closet indulgence for reasons i wouldn't mind exploring here at a later date.

Anyway, fast-forwarding to the present, 2009 was a total fucking bastard of a year from start to finish. I hit so many walls i lost count. But in the murky depths of unspeakable waking nightmares, a little flame sparked to life.

At the end of last year, I was referred to Jules Thorn Recovery Centre. This is effectively a Day Hospital and I was dreading being institutionalised yet again. The reality came as a lovely surprise.

Jules Thorn is a sparkling oasis strangely blooming amidst the red brick labyrinths of St Pancras Hospital. There is very little psychiatric intervention and the focus is on group work with visual art, pottery, music, dance and movement at the heart of it all.

This is also supported by several taught sessions where service users can explore how meditation can enhance their journey to recovery. The latter was sheer joy. It was taught at a very introductory level, but now I try to attend the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green when i can.

Now that I have left Jules Thorn, I thank it from the bottom of my heart for opening up some wonderful new pathways. Never ever did I think I would feel that way about any part of the NHS. 12 years ago I was offered ECT by the same Mental Health Authority (i.e. Bloomsbury and Islington NHS) and barely escaped from that terrifying encounter.

Jules Thorn has fought hard to retain the input of a professional artist (Carolyne Kardia - painter and sculptor) as opposed to exclusively relying upon occupational therapists. For as long as I can remember, I have loved drawing. Most of this was confined to the margins of my schoolbooks and, in adult life, to oceans of doodling.

I now realise how scared I was of taking it seriously. Life seemed so painful at times that the heights and depths of self-discovery I always knew would spring from taking art seriously seemed too frightening to embrace. Until Carolyne provided a generous helping of encouragement, which inspired me to paint for the first time ever.

Now I just can't stop. The first paintings were postcards depicting musicians playing the music I associate with healing and kindness. I think, in these, I'm trying to depict something of the loving kindness meditation in that the musicians are absorbed in their music but are neither gloomy nor ecstatic - they are somehow detached while being fully in the moment. They emerged as 'postcards from a kinder planet'. More recently, I've begun to explore dreams ...

I've tired myself out. Better not blog again for at least a week. Don't want anyone to think I'm getting manic again.

Posted by Anonymous, 13 July 2010

Last modified by Anonymous, 27 July 2010

Joe McConnell is the new kid on the blog

This could actually be called Joe Blogs. But the joke would run thin very quickly and must have been used many times before. That's me alright. Always joking. Partly because all my life I've had an impairment which falls into the tabernacle of taboo.

Well nowadays is there really such a thing? But if that is now, well way back then having a condition - acute hypogonadism - which meant that you hit the andropause before yer mates had even entered puberty was definitely taboo.

Drawing a discrete veil over the details, suffice it to say that this both massively fucked up my sex life and continues to present obstacles when accessing the built environment when needing to pass water. But the worse bit was you just could not talk about it.

Luckily for me I had a robust sense of humour that has more or less got me through up until now. And also some wonderful friends and creative lovers. But, every so often, Hilda Humour decides to up stumps and head for the hills. Bitch!

These are the times I hit a wall and, in the arms of the ever-caring NHS, am told that I am bipolar - some have even hinted at schizophrenia - and that a healthy whack of anti-psychotic drugs is all I need to be normal. This is on the basis, that when they see me well, I usually have quite high energy levels and when they see me unwell, I can barely move other than to share what they consider to be pretty dark delusions.

I sometimes ask them how they would be themselves, if they, all-of-a-sudden, acquired the above-mentioned physical challenges and suggest that, after a spell in A&E they would probably need a lifetime of post-traumatic shock therapy.

I feel blessed to have discovered Disability Arts (while acknowledging the ambiguity of that working title). Colin Hambrook was the first person I could ever talk to about my difference. This was because I found in his own work, and that of the artists who he has so stridently supported for countless yonks, a language which, for the first time, I could use to express the nature of being excluded from the mainstream of society.

It took me years to understand some of the concepts (social model etc). Nancy Willis, Colin, Tanya Raabe, and more recently, Rachel Gadsden are some of artists whose work explores themes that have really helped me make it through.

I wouldn't call myself an artist, but for the last six months and for the very first time, I can't stop making art. Mostly painting but some work with clay and other media as well. I have never felt better in my life. I know some of you are going to groan 'oh art therapy!' Well fuck off groaners. I'd like to use this blog to share my healing journey with you. So I hope you'll let me know what you think and that we can compare our different experiences.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 12 July 2010

Last modified by Anonymous, 27 July 2010