Curated by Glasgow-based artist and writer Luke ‘Luca’ Cockayne and also showcasing works by Carys Reilly and Chandelle Waugh, multimedia exhibition Hard To Look At instigates a unique and innovative way of experiencing art that explores potentially triggering content.

As part of the Scottish Mental Health Festival 2023, the exhibition opened on 7 October at the Whitespace Gallery in Edinburgh. It invites viewers to confront the realities of emotionally charged and sensitive themes such as psychosis and psychiatric admission, self-harm, sexual assault, miscarriage and pregnancy loss, while placing a strong emphasis on transparency and a sincere commitment to emotional well-being in the approach to curation process.

Tapping into narratives shaped by the personal experiences, the featured artists present three intimate artworks, comprising a conceptual sculpture-installation, a video piece with accompanying images, and a manuscript from a book, complemented by supplementary materials encouraging audience participation. Notably, the central focus of the exhibition lies not only in the artworks, their visual aesthetics, or their themes, but rather in addressing a compelling question that underlines the overall visitor experience: How to showcase artworks delving into distressing themes without causing harm to the viewers or reopening emotional wounds for the artists themselves?

The answer to this question hinges on active consent to enter the space, experimentation and adaptation, and responsiveness to audience feedback. From the outset, visitors are greeted by the organiser and curator, Luke, who warns about the potentially upsetting content and encourages self-care. This initial interaction immediately sets the considerate tone for the audience experience, granting individuals the agency to make informed choices about their participation. Visitors are further encouraged to engage with the artworks at their own pace and are provided with traffic light wristbands, denoting their comfort level for interaction: green for conversation, red for no contact, yellow for uncertainty. This system ensures a sense of autonomy and control throughout the experience, with the flexibility to modify preferences at any point.

Walking around the gallery one understands why: the minimal presence of the curatorial notes leaves viewers with limited contextual information about the artworks, potentially hindering their full comprehension – especially for those unfamiliar with the artists’ backgrounds or the themes explored. Instead, the exhibition encourages an open dialogue with the artists, fostering direct and spontaneous engagement between visitors and creators. While this approach facilitates unfiltered conversations and the opportunity to process emotions and thoughts in a supportive environment, leading to deeper appreciation and more personal connection with the art, it may also result in a less cohesive experience for those who are hesitant to engage.

On a contrasting note, as one of the artists highlights, the exhibition does not impose predefined meanings on the artworks. Instead, it stimulates an interaction between the audience and the artwork that is governed by a tacit invitation to uncover meaning based on their individual life experiences. This dynamic encourages interpretation and communication, bridging informational gaps, giving the shape and weight to the overall artwork’s meaning.

Another interactive element within the exhibition involves the viewers physically editing the manuscript of a book and sifting though various papers and documents, putting them on the wall or removing those deemed too traumatic to be on display. This hands-on approach enables active engagement with the themes and allows viewers to contribute their thoughts and responses creatively. Once again, active consent is exercised, setting the parameters for how the exhibition should be experienced. This feedback mechanism empowers both visitors and artists to express their ideas and concerns, leading to real-time adjustments in curation, ultimately making the exhibition a responsive and adaptable space that evolves and improves over time.

The spatial arrangement of the exhibits also reflects an acute understanding of emotional dynamics, prioritising visitors’ thoughtful responses over immediate reactions to content. This approach involves respecting the space needed by individual viewers to engage with the artworks, allowing natural pauses between each piece, particularly when the material proves to be unsettling. Visitors can seamlessly retreat into a neutral white space if they wish to regain control without leaving the exhibition, avoiding the potentially distressing acknowledgment of emotional reactions triggered by specific exhibits. Additionally, the provision of designated safe spaces within the gallery permits visitors to take breaks and gather themselves should they become emotionally overwhelmed.

Remarkably, despite its modest size, Hard To Look At takes significant measures to guide visitors in navigating the potentially disturbing scenes safely. The interactive and adaptive elements, combined with a focus on both the artists’ and visitors’ welfare, strike a balance and make it a brave and an exceptionally thoughtful exhibition. Used as an advocacy tool for discussion on mental health issues and traumatic experiences, this curatorial approach resonates with the audience and lingers long after exiting the gallery.

Inesa Vėlavičiūtė is a Talking Heads volunteer living in Edinburgh. A translator and ESL teacher as well as visual arts and puppetry critic, she is passionate about words, storytelling and communication around mental health and other social issues we face. Wanting to contribute her skills to build an informed, sustainable and caring society we all want to live in, she currently also works for Community Justice Scotland on the Restorative Justice service project delivery. You can follow her on Twitter @IVelaviciute and Facebook.

Illustration of a box with the words written on it 'how do we show 'difficult' art without re-traumatising the artist or harming or triggering the viewer?

Hard to Look at

Whitespace Gallery, Edinburgh
How do we curate potentially triggering art? This exhibition of work from Luke ‘Luca’ Cockayne, Carys Reilly and Chandelle Waugh asks how artists can explore difficult work in a way that is safe for themselves and others. 
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