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How can art contribute to alleviating anxiety?

Updated: Mar 2, 2019

There are many different types of anxiety; from social to trauma related anxiety. It can affect all parts of life or it can be an acute feeling that causes occasional stress. The kind of anxiety that we experience will affect the kind of environments that benefits us.

When questioning how the art world could contribute to alleviating anxiety, it’s useful to consider the creative spaces that are available. The gallery is a obvious place to start and offers the possibility of creating work on a 'clean slate'. But the gallery is not completely neutral. Its white walls and square form can be cold and industrial. It can also have elite and inaccessible connotations. So how can we benefit from its empty space to create an attractive experience?

Before realising the connection between creating experiences that support wellbeing and my own artwork, my favourite kind of art was the immersive installations of artists such as Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell. Their use of light and their ability to create sublime experiences have been an inspiration over the past few years. When seeing Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Tate Modern in 2003, I was amazed by how powerful art could be in increasing our appreciation of the natural world. Turrell is renowned for his talent to engage the audience with the impact of light and colour on our perception. With his Quaker background, his constructions are peaceful and democratic spaces.

I was interested to learn what others felt about Eliasson and Turrell's work. I presented a image of one of Turrell’s Skyspaces and an image of Eliasson’s The Weather Project to a couple of people to see what their response were when considering the benefits of the works in relation to anxiety. I asked them to score the pieces from 1 to 5, between 1-relaxing and 5-stressful.

Turrell scored 2-quite relaxing and 3-mixed. The participants commented that the work could be peaceful and relaxing but that there could also be the feeling of being stuck in an enclosed space like a well. This addresses the potential of the work but draws attention to its limitations. The work is often located outdoors and is made of hard materials such as stone. This can cause it to feel a little bit harsh as we peer up at the opening to the sky.

Eliasson's work scored 1-relaxing and 2-quite relaxing. One participant said that they were curious about the sun and that it gave a warm atmosphere. Another pointed out that the mist looked fun. Despite the huge scale of the 'The Weather Project', Eliasson succeeded in creating an experience that was sublime and intimate. I believe that this is a very important element; offering an experience that could enable a person to transcend their worries and ensuring that the scale of work does not create fear.

When chatting to a participant we discussed the relationship between the natural world and anxiety. They explained how nature can soothe anxiety but that its hugeness could also create fear. We also discussed the type of places and situations that cause anxiety and that it can often occur when an individual is the focus of the attention of a group of people. This could explain why experiences that draw the attention towards the greatness of the environment, and away from the individual, could be beneficial.


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