'Mental' is a honeypot in all senses

1st August 2003 at 01:00
When the art exhibition Mental opened in Denmark, visitors liked it so much that one clambered into the large pool of honey that forms the centrepiece of one exhibit.

For the Glasgow Science Centre, which is hosting the show all summer, the vision of some smart schoolkid transformed into a sticky mess was too horrible to contemplate. A thick layer of Perspex now protects the honey pool.

It is a prudent shift away from artist Helen Storey's original concept, but the rest of the show accurately reflects her "passion for science and my hunger to question it through art".

Not long ago, other parts of this startling exploration of creativity and human emotion - such as the uncensored contents of the big book in which visitors write their secret thoughts, or the naked female who lights up with delight when gently stroked - might have been thought too provocative for public display. But honey is considered more dangerous these days than sexuality or verbal expressions of raw emotion.

Former fashion designer Helen Storey hesitates to call her work art, and confesses that she still has a designer's brain, which means "everything has to have a use". Mental's use is to help us recognise our responses and emotions, and learn what it means to be human. But as with all art, those responses vary with the individual: young Finlay finds the "one-legged, no-armed furry lady" hugely entertaining, and would like to help her out by giving her one of his brother's legs.

But like most of the children visiting the show all week from Project Ability, a Glasgow-based arts group working with people with mental and emotional difficulties, he especially likes the exhibit called Whisper. "I love playing with the computers and watching the shapes in the honey," he says.

Whisper is an invention rather than a thing of flesh and blood - a beautiful but incomplete woman who lives in the computer and wants to learn about emotions. She asks the children to help her come fully alive. What should she fear? Whom can she trust? Will she need love to survive? With each question answered by the kids, Whisper evolves until her final form is projected by the central computer into the pool of honey.

The children are enthralled. In teaching Whisper about sadness, love and fear, they learn about their own feelings and grow more aware of themselves. "Which of these would you like to destroy," Whisper asks Lynn.

She chooses the sandcastle - "but only sandcastles I've made myself, not other people's," she explains. "That might make them cry."

For Project Ability's Sharon Quigley, the exhibition is both fascinating and a wonderful stimulus for children's creativity. "As an artist, I love it. It shows how artists can work with scientists to come up with creative learning tools.

"One of the exhibits asks for the shape and colour of particular feelings, and for these kids especially - they have Asperger's Syndrome - that's an interesting way to get them thinking. And, because it is all so imaginative, it's a great starting point for the children to devise their own stories, which they will then act out and film."

Mental is an international exhibition which opened at the Osknehallen Gallery, Copenhagen, before moving to London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. It will remain at the Glasgow Science Centre until September 4. Space is available for workshops or discussion groups beside the exhibition.

Glasgow Science Centre: tel 0141 420 5000, www.gsc.org.uk. Helen Storey Foundation: www.helenstoreyfoundation.org. Project Ability: tel 0141 552 2822, or see www.ukattraction.comglasgow+clydeproject-ability.htm

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