From Milgram to Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell

Is it art disguised as psychological experiments? Or psychological experiments disguised as art?

The Russian Dolls exhibition at the Golden Thread Gallery was to explore themes of artistic collaboration and inspiration, with art that contained other art. Only when Golden Thread Gallery artistic director Peter Richard approached Belfast-based artist Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell to take part, she had had other ideas.

‘Instead of using other artist’s work,’ she explains with a grin. ‘I’ve used science experiments instead.’

Her contribution to the tripartite exhibition is an installation consisting of a maze of dimly lit, vaguely institutional corridors and ‘test zones’. Each of the test areas uses a famous psychological experiment and some artistically introduced contradictions to pose a question to the solitary viewer.

‘I’ve always been  interested in psychology and psychological experiments like the Milgram experiment (which does feature in one of the ‘test zones’),’ Breathnach-Cashell says.

It’s something she first touched on as part of her artistic practice, which often involves constructing ‘immersive environments’. To create the effect she wanted on people, Breathnach-Cashell started to read up on colour theory and the psychological effect that architectural details, such as ceiling height, had on people. Then she branched out into psychological studies on narcissism, empathy and the differences between liberals and conservatives.

The experiments range from the famously controversial, such as the Milgram inspired proto-electric chair just waiting for the brave to sit down on it, to the specific and quirky.

‘This is based on a study that showed that conservatives were a lot more easily disgusted than liberals,’ she explains of one experiment, as a mixture of neutral and disturbing pictures flicked up on a screen. ‘There’s also evidence that if someone is disgusted before a test, it changes how they fill in a questionnaire. It makes them more intolerant.’

In others the viewer’s narcissism is tested to see whether they instinctively look at an image of themselves or at others or the accuracy of split second decision making.

‘The subconscious is more intelligent than the conscious,’ Bhreathnach-Cashell says. ‘Baseball players make decisions about when to swing far faster than the conscious mind could.’

Interesting though psychology is, Bhreathnach-Cashell has no doubts about her chosen profession.

‘As an artist I can do this, run these tests,’ she says, waving a hand at her zones. ‘If I was a psychologist? I’d get struck off. It would be ethically dubious at best.’

Throughout the installation, prompted along by insistent buzzers, the viewers are instructed to answer the questions posed on a form. At the end they throw it away.

‘It’s almost pointless really,’ Bhreathnach-Cashell says cheerfully. ‘All that investment in getting it right, and it’s just thrown away.’

Or, of course, the viewer could fail to fill in the form or they keep it. Perhaps they could even take the test in a group? As Bhreathnach-Cashell points out, she’s no way of enforcing her rules.

‘It will be interested to see if people obey or not.’

Russian Dolls is at the Golden Thread Gallery until August 3


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