Everything is Fine

Caryn Coyle

I’ve always wanted to be an artist; so I suppose I’ve always wanted to go mad. It has been difficult to avoid worshipping the idea of the tortured artist, and to reject pushing myself closer to the “edge” to become truly great. Especially when many sources illustrate creative madness to be one and the same: movies, books, and artists themselves. My earliest and greatest influence, however, has been a source much closer to home, my aunt Dot. In the fall of 2000, Dot committed suicide and our tightly knit family took her death very hard. My earliest memories of aunt Dot are of a charming, beautiful woman, an artist, whose life was carefree and ideal. Later I understood that she was a victim of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. As I became aware of her difficulties, I struggled with the ways in which I had perceived her.

I’ve always felt that Dot and I led parallel lives, and often wonder if that will continue. We are the youngest daughters of large, traditional families, raised in the suburbs, and striving for a little something more. Because we were both artistically inclined it was natural for my family to group us together. Although Dot was often absent, my family has many of her snapshots and photographs. I would look at them and see exactly who I wanted to be. She appeared to be wild and dazzling. In actuality, Dot was sad and broken down, but I was unable to separate the “real” Dot from the glamour and adventure I had attached to her life. Although Dot had displayed warning signs of her illness in her childhood, it was during graduate school that her mental health started to take a turn for the worse. My family felt that, seemingly embarrassed of her conservative upbringing, she pushed herself to be eccentric and unusual. The pressure and anxiety to be unique proved too much for her. She started to suffer from severe depressions, to hear voices, to live a precarious life. After her death, Dot remained a constant presence in my life. Like an affable ghost or an imaginary friend, she has travelled with me in the back of my mind. I have both wished and feared that I will become like her. For me, she continues to be the image of an artist, and yet I know that to follow her path is to follow a road to destruction. Since pursuing my own graduate degree, I have thought of Dot more than ever and feel a stronger need to understand her struggles. Reaching another parallel in our lives, I wonder if I, too, will be unable to handle the pressure and anxieties. And I wonder if in order to truly become an artist I must push past my worries and let go to madness.

In attempting to understand Dot’s life and the grips of her disease, I created the series Everything is Fine. It is a project comprised of several video installation pieces that embody my process of comprehension and exploration. Each video strives to express a feeling of anxiety, of instability, of what it means to reach your breaking point. Paired with a precarious sculptural element, the tension of the videos is brought into the reality of the exhibition space. The actors in the videos include my mother, my sisters, and a female cousin. I wanted to expand the actors beyond myself in order to express the idea of commonality. I’ve chosen to use my family members, as well as myself, as performers in these videos in order to address the hereditary nature of mental illness. I’ve chosen women to feature so that, as subjects, we represent not only ourselves but also become stand-ins for Dot.

I am inspired by Sophie Calle, with works like Take Care of Yourself and The Sleepers. Her work is autobiographical but not highly personal, intimate but also voyeuristic. The end result is both documentation and an art piece in its own right. Trying to apply these principles to my work, I chose to move my project about Dot into the world of video and performance. Other influences for my work are experimental video from the late 1960s and’70s. Pieces like Bruce Nauman’s Stamping in the Studio and Bouncing in the Corner I, as well as William Wegman’s Stomach Song were good references for body exercises used as art and performance. Chris Burden’s Through the Night Softly and Shoot showed me a way of using physical harm to provoke an emotional reaction. It is perhaps the work of Bas Jan Ader that has been my strongest guide. Ader’s work possesses many of the same attributes as Nauman, Wegman and Burden, but contains much more emotional weight.

Everything Is Fine is a project about my aunt. It is a project about my family. It is a project about myself and, most of all, it is a project about the struggles to create. Perhaps becoming an artist will drive me mad, or perhaps, to quote Louise Bourgeois, “art is a guarantee of sanity.”