Do not go to the Wellcome Collection in a state of foolish hope. Neither of these shows – Tranquillity on the ground floor, Joy on the first – is designed to change your mood in any way. So much so that after copious wall texts, bafflingly variable art and lengthy headset contributions from scientists, academics and a token poet (albeit the excellent Raymond Antrobus), you may emerge less uplifted than you were before. To quote the neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach, musing on the soundtrack, you might be better off with some Scottish country dancing and a dram.
Tranquillity touches on yoga, meditation, spiritual and mental peace. Though the first installation, by Jasleen Kaur, is intent on the very opposite. Alarming archive footage of yogis contorting themselves on world tours, and of white crowds in Indian yoga retreats, alert you to racial exploitation and the commodification of ancient practices. The outsize crystal is about the over-mining of minerals. The huge palo santo wood sculpture “references the rapid deforestation in … South America”. The wall texts are nothing if not dogmatic.
There is a wild, not to say bewildering diversity of exhibits. Here is an old print of a hermit, serene in her cell, next to a swipe-right Instagram installation featuring autumn leaves, next to a wall of random socks darned by an artist during a hospital residency. Darning may bring its own peace, to be sure, but we are in the terrain of self-help manuals.
Positive thinking might be the ticket: consider the notebooks of the black American sci-fi writer Octavia E Butler, exhorting herself to succeed. Allotments are good for you, according to Toby Glanville’s enlarged photographs. But just to depict a gardener with his lettuce is to explain nothing about the riches of growing a plant – try reading Allan Jenkins’s classic memoir, Plot 29, instead.
Likewise, the nearly lifesize forest photographs of the French artist Chrystel Lebas – marvellously deep, dark and knotted as they are – are given a mazy installation, and a soothing spa soundtrack. Why walk through this when you could be outdoors in nature?
Upstairs, Joy is stronger. It opens with Harold Offeh’s photographs of lone dancers trying to get out of themselves in a flood of silent yellow colour. There are whirling dervishes and tarantella dancers, Buddhas resisting vicious demons by willpower alone, and Steve Budman’s famous and poignant photograph of students linking hands to describe a smiling face in an anti-Vietnam war protest.
No show featuring the exhilarating prints of the activist nun Sister Corita Kent – slogan and colour in blazing combinations – can lack joy. And there are other intoxicating images, not least Barry Lewis’s photograph of a man tumbling gleefully backwards into the swimming pool at Butlin’s, beneath hyper-cobalt skies and the famous sign “Our true intent is all for your delight”. But the saturated colour is telling: hyperbolic as Butlin’s’ inflated promise.
Indeed, almost no contemporary artist comes at either of these two subjects without qualification or outright irony. Look at Offeh’s film of himself trying to sustain a beaming grin all the way through two minutes 58 seconds of Nat King Cole’s rendition of the song Smile. It’s an endurance test for artist and viewer alike; nobody can instruct us (or themselves) to be happy.
The relationship between the two shows is at times fruitfully complex. The Instagram account that counts the blessings of a bowl of porridge, downstairs, is trounced by David Shrigley’s typically sardonic drawing upstairs, where a man pretends to enjoy his porridge through gritted teeth. But the images are too often less stimulating, throughout, than the words.
Are emotions “inherited bodily inclinations”? Can chromotherapy help balance the troubled mind, or breathing rituals, or what Iris Murdoch called “unselfing”, or having the right number of friends and acquaintances – Dunbar’s number, as it’s known after the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, talking on your headphones.
All of these philosophical, psychological and scientific questions would make tremendous discussions. And that is the inherent problem with each show: it is neither the conference it wants to be nor quite an exhibition.
For true wisdom, listen to the Buddhist nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo explaining how to tame the monkey mind. Or read the many beautiful definitions of happiness collected from random strangers on the walls outside the show. To be happy is to travel without time limits, to read in bed, to watch fast-moving clouds, to be gladly tired, to sit beneath a tree (“but an earlier heaven”) – in essence simply the chance, and the gift, to appreciate.
Star ratings (out of five)