Image & Index

Discussions of Art Psychotherapy & the Re-Construction of the Individual


The image of the individual or the self / ego, is a widely used subject and is one of the primary focuses of my work. The self is the most complex of all concepts to confront; coupled with questions of the human condition and psychology, it forms, not only humanities continual search to understand itself, but my continuing artistic preoccupation.

There are two essential types of artists, those who work with the internal and those who work with the external. The internal forming the physical presence of the individual and everything contained by it; the external manifests as everything in the world outside that being.

Philosophy traditionally searches for truth and historically, has been at odds with art over the notion of what constitutes truth. Fortunately artists have long realise that there is no one truth, but layers of many subjective truths, and it is this view point which makes the practice so suitable to therapeutic endeavours. As such, the realisation of this gives us one of the most useful art-psychodynamic premises, that the image is always an extension of the creators’ ego.

All images are consciously or subconsciously filtered, manipulated and presented by the artists. A key demonstration of this appears when two artists recreate the same image in varying ways.

With this in mind, it is logical how all images are projections of the individual’s psychology and as such can be a tool for the therapeutic purposes; but where does that leave us in our understanding of those who rather than create image, deliberately destroy it and how does this link in with aspects of index?

To understand this we must first establish what art index is in this case. The framework of index in this context is the notion of evidence, trace and sum-parts. It is the evidence of an event, witness and record, the particles that make the whole, traces that are left behind or that lead up to the subject. As such the notion of Index is clearly referenced with that of destruction.

The deliberate destruction of the self is a deeply unsettling notion and clearly links with psychological violence, self-harm and suicidal tendencies. Paradoxically it also has associations with cleansing, rebirth, and resolution; and it is these juxtapositions that enable us to utilize art psychotherapy as a dynamic tool of healing and transformation.

So how can index be of use in tackling destruction in the art therapy context? To answer this I am going to use the recent suicide of my late friend Catherine Stevenson, aged 26, as a practical exploration.

Before she died, Catherine undertook a process in which she began to systematically erase her image from existence. Not only did she embark on this easement for herself, a form of ego deconstruction allowing her process of letting go, but also an easement of her image from her social networks and society in general, forcing her friends and world to also let her go. This was undertaken in Catherine’s characteristic clinically efficient over a considerable time, with careful planning and the exact executing of each step of that plan. Systematically she closed accounts, tied up loose ends, paid off bills, severed relationships, resigned work, moved out of her accommodation, gave away possessions, destroyed any trace of her existence, said good bye, created plausible excuses, wrote several letters, and in October 2006 she sent two notifications to the police by recorded delivery and suffocated herself.

There is very little evidence left that this exceptionally intelligent and gifted girl ever existed in the world. This was exactly as she intended, a complete destruction of image, a reversed birth.

Where did this leave those of us that she left behind? Bereft, angry and grieving obviously, but strangely understanding of her choices. One thing above all struck me on the day of her funeral; the reconstitution of her image through the collective memories of her friends and family, the gathering of what few possessions remained, and the laying out of a lifetime of photographs from birth to death. I was witness to and contained in some magical and importance process of re-recreation.

It is this process, this amassing of index to recreate the image from the post-destructed evidence and traces, which I continue to undertake and transform with this work. A healing of the image, through which we experience a healing of ourselves. Art therapy in its most basic and elemental level.

2007, Image & Index Strand: Accompanying text for "Catherine 2007"