Stendhal Syndrome; my experience
Whether Stendhal Syndrome is a real phenomenon is still widely debated. Proven or not, art still has an extraordinary power to move us. This is my story.
It’s June 2012 and a Sunday. I may or not be hungover. I’ve dragged myself and boyfriend to the Tate Modern for the Yayoi Kusama retrospective . He isn’t hugely interested but he’s compliant.
I don’t know much about her, but this is a huge exhibition, it’s been getting a lot of press. Plus, I’ve seen pictures of spotty rooms which I’m sure will make amazing Instagram fodder.
At at this point in my life I’m mostly hoiking myself out to all the exhibitions in an attempt to prove that I’m out there, alive and cultured. I’m in my 20s. I want to do everything.
In the exhibition I’m captivated by a few massive canvasses caked in thick white paint; circles, over and over and over and over and over… Infinity nets.
Something clicks, a feeling I had about art in school, that it didn’t have meaning as such for me. It wasn’t conceptual, it was compulsive. I needed to be at the end of a paintbrush even when I “wasn’t painting anything”.
I was making textures and making and making and making. For nothing. I felt sad for being put off by teachers who tried to stuff what I was doing into neat Chagall and Van Gough-shaped boxes. What would have happened if I’d learnt about Kusama then? Something about outsider art suddenly made sense to me.
Maybe I was feeling over-sensitive. Maybe it was the hangover.
I knew that the exhibition ended with something called an “Infinity room”.
Of course I'd seen the pictures already, I’d been told by everyone that it was great. Nothing is a surprise anymore, I thought. It’ll probably be ok. At least I’ve discovered those canvasses.
I step into a dark, square room. Each wall is a mirror. A walkway snakes through the middle. Either side, shallow pools of water create another reflective surface. And above, thousands of tiny coloured lights suspended at different lengths from the (also mirrored) ceiling.
Tiny coloured lights, reflecting over and over and over, stretching to infinity.
Suddenly I can’t catch my breath. Suddenly I can’t keep walking. I am crying.
The boyfriend ushers me along so that the people behind me can pass, so that more people can get in. But wait. I am tiny. This is infinity. I’m going to die. Do these other people know? Can they feel it too?
Flashback to sometime between 2001 and 2004. I’m in university. A small art college in Cornwall.
My friend is telling me a story about her friend, who I haven’t met.
This friend recently visited the Sistine Chapel, and fainted, apparently overcome by it’s beauty.
“Bollocks” I think.
Flash forward to March 2016. I’m at Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield. My boyfriend is now my husband and we have an almost-two-year-old in tow.
It’s rainy, and the KAWS sculptures we’ve come to see are silhouetted against a grey sky.
The baby is tired and cold so we take shelter in the chapel. There’s a metal tree by Ai Weiwei, red with rust outside. Inside a video installation by Bill Viola, called Tristan’s Ascension .
I don’t know who Bill Viola is and I certainly don’t know who Tristan is. My 20 year old jaunts didn’t extend to the Opera.
The woman who welcomes us informs me that the cycle has just started again with a warm smile. I’m just here to get out of the cold, but I smile back.
There’s a single bench at the back of the chapel. It is dark, the windows have been boarded, and quiet, perfect for a sleeping baby.
At the other end of the cavernous room an enormous screen, stretching to the roof, and on it, seemingly life size, a man lies on what looks like an altar. It’s raining and he is dressed in a white robe.
The sound of the rain begins to reverberate around the space, quiet at first, getting louder. The rain falling on the man gets heavier and heavier. He struggles and squirms on the altar, he looks like he is in pain, it looks like he can’t breathe. It's discomforting.
This goes on too long. I don’t want to keep watching. I’ve moved to the edge of my seat now. Leaning in. Heavier and heavier and heavier rain, until the man is obscured.
But wait. The rain isn’t falling, it’s ascending. And now the man, invisible hook in his chest, is ascending too.
There is a weight forcing me to my seat, I’m clutching the edge of the bench. Familiar hollow feeling in my chest, shortness in my breath. Life is suffering. We need heaven. What if there is no heaven? I need something to believe.
What strikes me about these two events, years apart, is the strength of the physical reaction. Like a short, acute, panic attack. Thoughts thunder through my head in quick succession, like my life flashing in front of my eyes.
I settle back to real life quickly but am unable to explain the intensity of what has just happened to me.
I speak to my husband, “that really affected me, something strange happened” but that’s not a description. It’s not enough.
Last year I travelled to another Kusama exhibition featuring another infinity room. Nothing.
It’s not lost on me that the second incident took place in a chapel. Though I am not religious, I do believe that art has the power to cause rapturous responses in humans and affect us in a profound spiritual way.
I offer no explanation except to say that this happened to me, and, unnerving as it was, I hope it will happen again.