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Confronting Mental Illness: a series of humanizing performances

Confronting Mental Illness: a series of humanizing performances

In the not-so-often-told story of Herakles the demigod, the regale of a hero born to slay the three-headed hydra is traded for a man who, stricken with madness, kills his family and is condemned to a life of sorrow and regret. The acts of glory we see in cartoons and read in books are actually Herakles’ 12 public acts penitence. Matthew Bodett, Professor of Fine Arts at Loyola University Chicago and new to the campus as of Fall 2017, confronts this paradox of mental illness and penitence in his own set of acts through“Twelve: a series of performative koans,” premiering September 16 through November 4 at various locations throughout the city of Chicago.

A series of 12 different artistic acts and performances,“Twelve” abstracts the story of Herakles to explore Bodett’s relationship with schizophrenia and confront society’s relationship with mental illness. Much like a Buddhist koan—or paradoxical riddle leading to enlightenment—“Twelve” calls for an internal investigation from the audience that ultimately illuminates greater understanding of the many facets of mental illness.

“Now I have a performance. It’s a labor for me, so I feel like it fits within the very difficult world of Herakles. But I need to be careful in utilizing it as a koan to not provide direct answers,” Bodett said.“To not say that I am going to spell out what mental illness is in a way that then you can walk away and be like,‘Oh, now I know,’ and move on with your life. I want it to be a little difficult, and I want the people involved to have more questions when they leave than when they come in.”

Bodett first got the idea for “Twelve” five years ago in graduate school at Boise State University. Following his diagnosis for schizo-affective disorder in 2005, much of Bodett’s artistic work has been investigating that disorder, along with mental illness in general. In graduate school, Bodett was researching the origins and viewpoints of madness when he found the story of Herakles.

“I had come across the Herakles story, and I was very drawn to it because we always talk about Herakles as a hero and not about this fallible nature of madness that he struggled with. So we miss a huge part of his story,” said Bodett.“That so rings true to everything about madness and mental illness, which is that we don’t want to talk about the dirty stuff.”

Bodett received funding for the project through 3Arts' University of Chicago at Illinois Fellowship. 3Arts, an arts funding organization based in the Chicago Metropolitan area, approached Bodett in 2016 to be an Artist-in-Residence. The fellowship, now entering its third year, supports the creation of new works that engage with disability culture.

The different performance events span a range of genres, themes and locations, including an abstract theatrical performance at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre and a poetry and accompanying film series at the Poetry Foundation. Features of“Twelve” include the performance at Steppenwolf and an audio-visual abstraction of poetry and music as a part of Victory Gardens Access Project.

More information about the events and ticketing can be found on Bodett’s website.

Bodett describes his interest in a wide variety of art genres as something that has always been a part of him. He began drawing at a young age and shortly after developed an interest in poetry. He continued to explore artistic forms as he pursued art in adulthood, and now he pulls these different mediums into his exhibitions.

“It generally has come down to what’s my project, what will best utilize and express that symptom, that impairment,” said Bodett.“I think that this project in particular is opening me up to doing a lot more new things.”

One of these new things is collaborating with Chicago-based experimental musicians for the performance at Victory Gardens. Bodett wrote an abstracted musical score that composer and improviser, Christopher Preissing, turned into a musical composition. That composition, along with a few of Bodett’s poems, will be converted into a LED light performance by composer and sound sculptor, Ricardo Mondragon. The final performance consists of only the light composition—no sound—where the audience will be challenged to“hear” their own composition without the use of all five senses. 

At the Victory Gardens performance, another first for Bodett is the use of audio captioning for the light performance. Along with the typical accommodations for audience members with physical disabilities, such as wheelchair accessibility and captioning, the Victory Gardens performances use three audio interpreters to describe the three layers of lighting that make up the performance for those who may not be able to see the visual composition.

For Bodett, creating an exhibit that invites the audience to attach personal experience to the work is crucial to the process behind its creation. Bodett’s art is fueled by a passion for investigating the seemingly uncomfortable, and in his mind there is no better way to humanize mental illness than through such an expressive medium.

A smile creeps onto his face as he shares what he often tells his students on the first day of class:

“For me, real art, the art that I’m interested in and that I look for and I push for, makes us confront ourselves, makes us question ourselves and makes us not comfortable in an effort to make us better. Not just to scare us, not just to throw out something that is going to cause a ruckus then is gone, but to really, genuinely allow us to understand ourselves more deeply.”