Interview with artist and curator, Dale Mernpunk!
Ahead of the Unhooked exhibiton taking place later this year, Britain Uncovered is today speaking with curator, Dale Mernpunk, about diet culture, the negative impact of social media, the reasons why BMI calculators are unhelpful, and many other important body image issues. In addition, we also hear more about Dale’s latest work, ‘Famine’, which is a direct response to the obsessive diet advice that intrudes on our daily lives.
Britain Uncovered: Hi Dale! Thanks for taking some time to speak with us about your upcoming exhibition and your views on art and body image matters! To start with, could you please tell us a little about what the exhibition involves, why you decided to launch it, and what you’re hoping to achieve with it?
Dale: The exhibition will be held at Yellow Edge Gallery in Gosport, Hampshire from October 8th to 17th. Unhooked will (hopefully!) showcase the work of 20 artists - we have 14 so far - each depicting their own struggles with mental health issues. Most of our artists so far have, in some way, utilised art as an outlet, and a way to channel their feelings and experiences.
As curator, I have sought a variety of artistic styles, not only to make the exhibition engaging for visitors but also to illustrate the huge variety of artist mediums that can be enjoyed. So far, we have some fabulous art. We're a really diverse bunch, and I hope that seeing these incredible artworks gives a new perspective to mental health struggles for viewers.
I was so determined to get some really edgy and credible artists and art into the gallery for Unhooked. I want it to be an exhibition that will draw people in from the street as they pass. I wanted colour and intrigue and depth and darkness. I want people to look at the works and think, ‘Wow, these are funky and credible and talented – oh, and these people also are inspired by their mental health experiences’.
I didn't want Unhooked to be a cliché of mental health issues. I would like the exhibition to be a positive thing, rather than it being the usual attitude of, 'Here we are, broken people. Feel sorry for us'. I know I personally use my 'differentness' as a motivation and inspiration, rather than it being a hindrance.
Britain Uncovered: Are we right in thinking that the exhibition seeks to promote ‘art as therapy’, and if so, how has art helped you on a personal level over the years?
Dale: Yes, my aim with Unhooked is to demonstrate that something beautiful can come from channelling mental health issues via a healthy outlet – in this case, art. Many of our artists have found comfort or even just distraction in creating, and this exhibition is a showcase of just a few of those pieces. For me personally, creating gives me a focus that isn't overthinking.
As someone who has suffered all my life with feeling not good enough, finding art gave me the opportunity to create something where there was no right or wrong way to do it. Art is so freeing that way. There isn't an approved method. You can just let yourself create and it doesn't need to fit in a box. If I'm having a ‘wobble’, as I usually call it, I can sit myself down in front of a new piece and it feels like a reset. I can vent everything I'm feeling, even have a dig at the things bothering me, and at the end there's this fabulous thing (or something that’s just a bloody mess – but hey, that's art!)
Britain Uncovered: Amongst the work in the exhibition is a piece called ‘Famine’, which relates to the influence of social media on young people’s body image. What can you tell us about this one?
Dale: Famine is part of my Four Influencers of the Apocalypse display. The piece consists of Famine, War, Pestilence and Death but with a modern day social media spin. In my take, the 'plagues' they are spreading are the mental health conditions they contribute to causing via their internet 'influence'. Famine's plague is eating disorders. Pestilence brings fear and anxiety. Death spreads poor self-image / self-confidence and War brings depression, division and self-doubt.
There is a fifth piece called The Price of Being Yourself and she is essentially the victim of the Four Influencers. From the front she's happily displaying her self-affirming quotes, but look closer and the 'price' of her self-expression is attached to her via 'Hashtag Pricetags'.
Famine represents all the obsessive dieting advice and general toxic messages that are fed to primarily women on a daily basis. Slimming product adverts, 'Red Swimsuit' adverts, 'Are you beach body ready' features. Scores and scores of filtered photos of Z-list nobodies airbrushed to within an inch of their lives. It creates this toxic impression that in order to be happy, you need to achieve perfection. But is there a such thing? At 42, I've realised that true perfection and happiness comes from being happy in your skin and learning who you authentically are, not trying to copy others.
There was one specific ad that really inspired me to create Famine. It was for some bar or another and depicted scores of slim women practically licking cake shop windows while a song played with lyrics about craving something you can't have. And I'm sat there thinking, “But why can't you have it?” Why are women bombarded with relentless messages about abstinence from enjoying food? What even is a beach body? Surely it's just any body that is on a beach at any given time. So why does it need to be ready?
Famine has had her mouth sewn up to keep herself from eating treats, and her eyes are covered so she can't see temptation. She's wearing a hood like those placed on kidnap victims to depict her being a hostage to body image expectations. Her need to constantly monitor her exercise is shown by her wearing a pedometer as jewellery, and she's literally glued to her tape measures to make sure she's always at her perfect shape. Her third tape measure is around her neck depicting the choking nature of it all.
Britain Uncovered: What are some of your views on the role of social media in relation to body image? It’s a question we have asked many of our interviewees in the past and we’ve received such a contrasting range of answers.
Dale: I do feel that, most definitely, social media can be an absolute poison. In many ways it can be as damaging as any other addiction, as people get far too invested in 'likes', who approves of them, and what others think. I've been there myself, when I first started my art and painting business. I felt out of my depth, terrified of not being good enough, and not cutting it in the approved arena. And so I tried to attach myself to others who I could learn from and be protected by association with. I stopped enjoying what I did, and instead tried to do what others thought I should be doing, seeking their head pats like a rescue dog.
Eventually it all got too much, so I shut down my social media and hid, certain the best thing was to turn my back on doing the things I'd previously loved because of how it was making me feel about myself. But after a few weeks and some great chats with my friend who gave me a stiff talking to, I decided to use what had happened to inspire me, and so the Four Influencers idea came to mind. I would use what had happened to me and create an art installation which allowed me to express how I was feeling. They've grown and developed since then, getting progressively stranger over time (haha)! But in truth, that bad experience led to the entire Unhooked exhibition existing.
As a counter to my own argument, and to prove to myself that social is not all bad, I recently did a two-week fundraiser for Solent Mind, asking lots of makers and artists I've met on social media since that experience if they'd be willing to donate a piece for a prize draw. Within an hour, we had 18 prizes donated. Everyone was amazing promoting and pushing for donations, and by the end of the two weeks we'd raised £724. So to me this proves that, like everything, social has two sides. You just have to be mindful of who you're associating with and make sure what you're using it for is positive and right for you.
Britain Uncovered: The exhibition is set to open in October 8, and profits from the event are also being donated to Solent Mind – Hampshire’s leading mental health charity. Why was this the right charity for this particular project, and could you share with us details of the charity art auction that’s set to take place during the course of the exhibition?
Dale: Having suffered mental health issues in varying degrees of severity since I was 17, I have experienced all too often how hard it is to get help. I've been fobbed off by doctors, and waited six months just for an initial consultation with an NHS therapist. I'm lucky that I can afford to pay to go to a counsellor each month, and that I've found an absolutely incredible therapist who completely understands me. But that took me until I was 40 years old! That's 23 years of wondering what the hell to do to make the feelings stop. It's so easy to feel like you're a burden, that there's something wrong with you or that you need to 'get over it' when you feel terrible. Charities like Mind offer hope and acceptance to suffers that don't know where to turn.
The auction will take place on the final day of Unhooked, and will feature a wide range of amazing art donated by all kinds of different artists – both Unhooked artists and those from outside. We have a great auctioneer lined up; he's a fellow artist, a massive character and he brings his gorgeous little French bulldog along with him! And I'm always sold where there's a dog involved.
We've got lots of people working on donations for this, and we're hoping to even get a couple of sketches donated by celebrities, fingers crossed! The way it's going so far, we'll be auctioning for the whole day as people are being super supportive!
If any artists are reading this and they would like to donate a piece, or if anybody has access to a celebrity, please give us a shout!
Britain Uncovered: A little while ago we spoke privately about how the NHS’s BMI calculator is potentially causing damage, as it’s suggesting people ‘watch their weight’ and classifying them as obese even if they’re seemingly fit and healthy. What are your thoughts on these types of initiatives, and in the worst case scenario, could this type of advice potentially lead to or encourage eating disorders and other mental health issues?
Dale: It's a joke. The NHS claims to have no budget for mental health, then they throw things like this out there that will potentially cause just those issues. I did mine just to see what it said, and the exact advice it gave me was, 'You are in the healthy weight range, but at the higher end. Keep an eye on your weight.' Are they having a laugh?
‘You're in the right weight range for your height, but…’ – so let me get this straight, there is literally an ideal number and anything either side gets reprimanded? A few years back, my husband was losing weight and I ended up losing some as a result of being supportive around him. I actually got that that 'magic number' on the BMI scale and I looked gaunt. My face was drawn, and I look sad in all the photos from back then.
I'm a proud freethinker, but even I saw that and thought “Shit, I'm at the higher end!” So for someone who believes in everything the NHS says, that kind of stupid phrasing and advice could easily lead to eating disorders.
When I turned 40, I actually decided to put a dress size on. I know right? That's not allowed for a woman in her forties! What about all those evil temptations? Quick, grab a weight loss bar! Think of your beach body! But then again, if I listened to those people I'd be going about in knee-length skirts with brown long highlighted hair so… I'd seen a lot of people get older and age because they lot weight, so I made a choice. It was either ‘Slimmer and look older’, or ‘Put some weight on and stay younger looking’. I'm happy with my choice!
Britain Uncovered: How does your exhibition seek to address problematic advice like this that could lead to harm, and what are you hoping visitors might learn about themselves during the course of their visit?
Dale: With regards to my piece, I hope people will look at the Four Influencers and their victim and have their eyes opened to the existence of this nefarious lurking force on social media. That's the sad thing – most people aren't even aware they're being brainwashed. I want people to see the humour in my pieces – all four are very tongue in cheek and deliberately mocking the whole cult of social media - and hopefully, next time they see a diet advert and feel affected they, like me, can think, 'Oh shut up Famine'.
Britain Uncovered: Are we right in thinking that you suffered from body image issues as a 17-year old, and if so, how do you now – at the age of 42 – reflect back on this difficult time? What would the Dale of today tell that 17-year old version of yourself, and what are some of the most important things you’ve learned about body image that continue to help you today?
Dale: Yes, I can remember spending hours fixating on being skinny enough for beach holidays. And I was already tiny! I look at photos and can't believe I saw myself as anything but. I had one unhelpful boyfriend growing up who thought it was amusing to call me ‘Chubber’ and other lovely names if I ate what he deemed to be too much.
It's honestly only since I've been with my current partner (a fellow artist and rebel!) that I've grown happy with myself and how I look. And even nowadays there are often times where I put on a pair of jeans and they feel tight and that voice in my head says, “You better do something about that!”
I'll sometimes wake up in the night and berate myself for drinking too many beers or eating too much 'junk'. I don't think it ever really goes away, especially with all the messages being pounded at us via the media and advertising. But then I remember I'm not that girl. I wish I could tell 17-year old me that no one cares about how long you spend on the exercise bike because it doesn't matter. Just be yourself, love yourself and stop obsessing over dress sizes!
Britain Uncovered: Do you think there’s enough support for people with body image issues, compared to when you were a teenager, or is there still lots, lots more that needs to be done to help people suffering with these issues?
Dale: I don't think there's enough support with any kind of mental health issues full stop. Thankfully, there are a lot more curvy women in modelling and advertising now, whereas I was a teenager in the height of the stick thin Kate Moss heroin chic era. That said, social media wasn't around then so the bombardment of fillers, lipo and filters wasn't a thing.
I feel sorry for kids living life at the minute. At least when I was growing up there was just the supermodel lot held up in front of us. Nowadays, everybody seems to be an influencer. I think a combination of social media and reality TV have created an image monster, as well as an aspiration to essentially just be a brainless piece of human meat that appears in heavily edited pictures and is famous for existing.
Britain Uncovered: Overall – both in the arts and beyond – what else in general do you think can be done to help people with their body image perceptions? Are the body positivity and body neutrality movements important in helping to promote body confidence and helping people to feel more comfortable in their own skin?
Dale: I think more of the kind of thing Britain Uncovered is doing. Really smashing it out there that there is no 'perfect body'. If I was to give advice based on my life experiences, the first thing I'd say is if you are in a relationship with someone, or just spend a lot of time around someone who isn't happy with you and seeks to change you, ask them why.
There are loads of people in the world, all with different tastes in what is sexy. There is no right body shape. So if someone is trying to change you or making you feel anything but bloody great about yourself, ask them why they are with you – and more to the point, ask yourself why you're with them!
Secondly, stop comparing yourself to others. You're a multifaceted unique, literally one off individual, not a second hand car.
Britain Uncovered: Shifting gears back to your exhibition, you’ve signed up 20 really great artists (yourself included) to be involved in this project. Other than ‘Famine’, which piece(s) of work do you think will be the most powerful and make the biggest impact – and are there any works that might surprise people or be a big talking point?
Dale: Aside from my work everything else is a mystery to me, so it will be as much of a surprise to me as the visitors. I just know we have some really strong artists who are in the process of creating specific works for the exhibition.
Britain Uncovered: Will you continue to promote your ‘art as therapy’ concept once the Unhooked Mental Health exhibition is complete, and if so, what are some of your plans and initiatives for 2022 and beyond?
Dale: Yes, I'd like to host other exhibitions in other cities with a completely new set of artists, to keep spreading the word about the benefits of art for therapy.
Britain Uncovered: Lastly, if anyone wants to find out more about the exhibition or donate to the project, what’s the best way they can get involved?
Dale: They can visit @unhookedtheexhibition on Instagram where there is a GoFundMe link for donations in the bio, as well as where information will be posted for anyone who wants to visit or bid in the auction. I can also be contacted by anyone who wants to know more or wants to be involved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Unhooked Art Exhibition takes place at the Yellow Edge Gallery in Gosport, Hampshire from October 8th to 17th, 2021. For more information about the venue along with directions, please click here.