Megan Farr reviews the Self-Help Show, a touring exhibition that critiques self-help culture in challenging times, demonstrating that help is more meaningfully sought together than alone.
Just before Covid hit, poet, translator and academic Luca Paci and illustrator Chris Glynn had begun collaborating via book hacks of Self-Help books. Paci would hack the books and Glynn responded with illustrations in a dialogue about how helpful these books might be in difficult times. Self Help and Mindfulness might be perceived as sticking plasters on the fallout of a pervasive neoliberal culture and created a paradox. How can people heal themselves alone? Books hacked included McKenna’s I Can Make You Happy, Campbell’s Speed Cleaning and Bayles and Orland’s Art and Fear which became the show’s Pandemic Primer, inspired by Brecht’s War Primer written during WW2. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life was also ripe for satire.
This conversation continued over the following lock-down months, as both friends grieved through family illness and death. Glynn would drop a daily postcard to Paci who would respond using literary texts. The vocabulary and phrases that emerged out of Covid-19 (distance learning, self-isolating, lockdown etc) were scrutinised and parodied and a corresponding world inspired by The Tempest and Six Characters in Search of an Author was created. Two characters evolved, A the writer and B the artist who wandered around the island they found themselves stranded on in search of meaning in a bewildering and disorienting time. Prospero’s library became a place of refuge full of books rescued from the shipwreck.
Over the past two years, Paci and Glynn have built a body of work including visual materials both created and found, music compositions, dramatic dialogues and poetry and the Self Help Show was planned as a touring exhibition to exhibit these artifacts and provide a space for conversation. The first stop was at Oriel Canfas in Canton, Cardiff last month. The gallery is a beautiful sun-filled space that lights up the exhibition. Each nook and cranny of the room was populated with curiosities. A teetering pile of self-help books at the front, boxes of postcards and knick-knacks on shelves and in the windowsills, two armchairs with a pop-up Hadron book on a make-shift coffee table, tiny chairs, Prospero’s office created from a desk and books, a shadow puppet theatre, and a wall with the letters A and B, an electric keyboard to the side, and the title ‘Self Help Show’ tucked up near the ceiling.
The stage was set for visitors to explore and navigate the artifacts in the show. Paci and Glynn played host, at times playing the characters of A and B, reading from scripts, singing original songs ‘Leave Your Ship Light’ and ‘Self-Help Waltz’ and performing poems. All this material is contained in Self-Help Island, an accompanying book published as part of the show which includes an essay on book hacking, music scores, poems, dramatic dialogues and an introduction to the project.
Between 17-28 May over 250 visitors of all ages and backgrounds engaged with the exhibition and had meaningful conversations with the show’s creators and each other including a delegate of academics from the University of Namibia and workshops with illustration students from Cardiff Met.
The exhibition hosted talks and performances exploring self-help culture including social worker and counsellor Jacqueline Alford, the founder of Coleridge Cymru Richard Parry, action poetry and conversation with major artist Ivor Davies, a discussion about death with PhD student George Gumisiriza, music with Welsh folk singer Guto Dafis and a performance with Parry & Son and Ivor Davies (you can watch it here).
The exhibition created an appealing interactive space where people could share ideas and have conversations and connected with visitors. The show will next go to Turner House in Penarth in February 2023 with plans to visit Milan, Leipzig and London over the next year. If it comes to a place near you, I recommend a visit.
Limited edition copies of Self Help Island are available now.