It’s 2017. Did you wake up OK? We kind of made it, we may be slightly or tremendously hungover but we are here, after all. It seems fitting to start the year with a bit of reflection. What better way to reflect on the past year than to revisit a project that Miami-based artist Antonia Wright started back in 2009. Throughout her work, Wright aims to bring pain and other uncomfortable emotions into the public realm. Her goal is for each of us to confront and heal from these emotions instead of fleeing from them.
Wright is no stranger to risking comfort and even injury in her work. The Are You OK? series features her crying in busy public areas during daylight. Dressed in timeless, elegant attire Wright’s wardrobe choice adds a sense of mystery and elitism. As has been taught to us by stereotypes in films or perhaps real life interaction, being wealthy and looking well-kept brings with it an expectation of suppressing emotion, making Wright’s performance all the more surprising.
Are You OK? explores what it means to feel your emotions in public, but the project’s roots are much deeper than that. Wright revealed to Paste how the project began during the Iraq War. “I was researching images of the casualties of the war – images of the dead that weren’t getting published – and it made me so unbelievably sad. Yet I looked out my New York City window and nothing seemed different. I put on a black dress and went into the street and cried in solidarity with the Iraqis. People started to ask if I was ok. The project started as a political action but evolved into a study on social structure. Why wouldn’t we stop to ask if someone needed help if they are crying? Why weren’t more people crying in public? Women seemed to be the only ones to stop and ask me if I was OK. I remember doing a search on ‘crying in public’ and the first thing to pop up was a wikiHow on ‘How not to cry in public.”
Wright later began using video to document the performances, which have taken place in New York, Miami, Paris and Havana. “In Havana, people seemed less afraid to approach each other,” she remembers. “I did the project last summer again in New York City on the same block I did it years before, but this time I was 9 months months pregnant…people from all age groups, sexes, and demographics asked if I was OK. Men with their sons asked, they offered me Kleenex and gave me hugs. There was no moral confusion, no questioning or hesitation, as to how people should react.”
Art has always been a way to reflect on and cope during times of difficulty, but powerful pieces can also bring up the difficult and disturbing. The world desperately needs us to start caring about one another, for neighbors to help neighbors, and strangers to help strangers. 2017 will usher in social and cultural changes, and it must be a year where we stand on a higher moral ground, armed with values of love and respect for others. Emotions are not the enemy; they help us connect and communicate with others. Especially when faced with profound sorrow, it’s clear from Wright’s series that a little bit of help from a stranger goes a long way.
We mainly communicate through a screen (hello!) which means dulling our emotions has become the norm. Being a numb-but-cool version of yourself is often seen as the only the way to get things done or earn respect. “Keep your emotions in check around the workplace, be easy-going with your friends and please only cry in private (if you must cry at all).” Women are told to not be so emotional while men are constantly chastised for displaying anything other than a tough-dude persona. Interestingly, very few men dared to comfort Wright, except for in Havana. Does this mean women are weaker? Quite the opposite. It is a great sign of bravery, courage and strength to go up to a stranger displaying distress.
Wright shared with us how we should go forth 2017, that “we should treat each person we encounter with the same respect and compassion you would offer a 9-month pregnant woman.” As the artist has demonstrated so movingly, in cities that are far from the same, connection breeds strength and gives purpose. Without connection we are no better than a two-dimensional still life. Sure, it’s pretty. But at this point in our weathered world, what purpose does that serve? Without connection, it’s just another pretty thing to look at. In 2017, we can show our strength best by giving voice to our vulnerabilities and being willing to ask for and offer help when it’s most needed.