In Henry Wolff’s video work CARE we see various performers, we’ll call them protagonists, performing slow drawn-out movements. Some appear alone, turning their attention to their own body or interacting with their environment (trees, derelict buildings, tall grasses), others appear together. Henry invited each performer to engage a person they have ‘a relationship of care’ with; for some this is themselves, for others their friend, sibling, parent, or child. These relationships are not made explicit, but trust and intimacy between the performers is tangible and apparent.
As much as our attention is drawn to the protagonists, the theme is connected and further elevated by the sites and locations. An old Morton Bay Fig, the old Royal Adelaide Hospital, a family garden; these locations further develop our thinking and experience of care. Henry and their sibling, Ingrid, appear together with their mother, Mary-Anne, among the disused buildings of Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre. This site is where Mary-Anne started her career as nurse. As much as the location is a background for their touching interaction, the site, like others in the work, resonates with the theme of care and symbolises the transition of care. This is encapsulated in the harrowing moment when Henry carries their mother. As we are reminded of caring for our own ailing and dying parents, we experience again the vulnerable corporeality of the moment in which a body—at one point so strong and protective—becomes frail.
The movements of all protagonists appear deliberate, considered and careful, but lack an external, direct purpose, making them a fleeting melody in a piece of improvisational music. Hands, feet, and arms sway, slither and glide, continuously meandering like a slow-moving stream. Movements mimic each other, different hands touch different surfaces (a tree, railing, wall, root, and bark) and in doing so share a tactile exploration of touch itself. As viewers we are drawn in; we are not a mere eyewitness, for our whole bodies are called into response. As is often the case for performance-based art, the work is partly an exploration and interrogation of the embodied self. As Jingwei Bu lies down, gently lowering her body to the pavement, we are invited to sense our own body becoming heavy, drawn unto and into the earth. As her hand and arm slowly lifts, ours become light. Henry tells us that Jingwei performs as a way to explore care for the self. Performance art often shows our vulnerabilities and strengths by testing the artist's physical and mental capacities. Here, we are more interested in our embeddedness in society, in ethics, what we owe each other and ourselves. In this context, we can see CARE as replacing the focus on testing the embodied self with an exploration and fostering of the ethical self.
Care knows different forms. Some of these come naturally; others are learned, artificially or commercially initiated and supported. Care involves awareness—or better—attention, to others or oneself. Care takes time and commitment, it is a response, reciprocating to a recognised need, but it can also be a spontaneous impulse, undirected and fleeting. Some care relationships are reciprocal, but not all. We dead-head roses in the garden, trim infected branches of an orange tree, scrape fungus off the tree’s bark, or shoo away birds eating fruits before they had the possibility to develop seed. Caring need not be profitable, nor even rewarding. Self-care, actioning your own health or well-being, not only takes time but also requires one to prioritise oneself. This can be pleasantly luxurious to some, but onerous, self-effacingly unnecessary or insurmountably difficult to others. Care can be fetishised and commodified, reduced to clichéd gestures or empty gesticulations. Like the variety of relationships in which care manifests, so our expressions and experiences of care are multifarious, subtle, invisible or incomprehensible to others.
Care entails supporting well-being, fostering growth and development, protecting from harm, actively changing the environment to achieve these things. Deeply embedded in our understanding of care (our care practices) and perhaps essential to it is love. We don’t mean romantic or sexual love, but love as a deep feeling of compassion and affection, either for a particular individual (a parent, sibling, partner, child, animal companion, friend, neighbour, etc.) or, perhaps, towards a community. Without love, care can be emphatic and earnest—but it then becomes a manifestation of duty—and a different kind of virtue, we think. The mute protagonists in the work do not demonstrate or perform care, by mimicking mundane caring actions (like making a sandwich, calling family, offering help, running an errand, etc.—perhaps the fitting of a shoe is a single exception), but they reduce care to its most rudimentary and essential, to that of love. They do so with and through their bodies, becoming a sensorial object in the hands of others, and communicating the intimacy, commitment, trust and reciprocity implicit in care.
“Performance art often shows our vulnerabilities and strengths by testing the artist’s physical and mental capacities. Here, we are more interested in our embeddedness in society, in ethics, what we owe each other and ourselves.
We can see CARE as replacing the focus on testing the embodied self with an exploration and fostering of the ethical self."
Doing good; being virtuous. Those two things sound like two sides of the same coin, or two routes for climbing the same mountain—and perhaps they are that. But they are also very different conceptions of the ethical and can give us very different ideas of how we should act. The idea that we should aim to do good is the central tenet of called utilitarianism: the view that we should maximise happiness and alleviate suffering in the world. Peter Singer is its most influential proponent today, and has used it to make powerful and influential arguments for vegetarianism and veganism, and systematic substantial charitable giving. But utilitarianism also has strange drawbacks or is perhaps incomplete as an ethical theory. One paradoxical-seeming quality is that it allows even the most ethical person, to be, by any ordinary reckoning, an awful person. Imagine a person who mechanistically employs formulae to dole out resources to promote happiness, but who takes active pleasure in withholding those resources where the formula says it must be done for the overall good. Maybe that sounds like a philosophical contrivance, but it’s not—one can actually become this way. Institutions play a role in this. Many large government institutions—think of health and education—have absorbed and sometimes been based on utilitarian ideas. There are many other ideas—political ideas of the day—which can come to dominate, but the utilitarian impulse usually remains, weak or strong. This impulse dictates that resources must be allocated based on where they will do the most good, and so a method of measuring that need must be agreed, with rules of allocation developed and applied impartially. These conditions do not necessarily bring the best out of those who work in these institutions. In such a workplace one often lacks agency—you are a cog in a machine, albeit a machine that was at some point designed to add to the good in the world. Being such a cog encourages our pernickety, bureaucratic, petty tendencies. It can encourage one to be cold and unfeeling, and even, yes, enjoy denying resources when the rules demand it for the greater good. Similar dynamics can occur in social media. We work out what is best and perform the formula, uninspired and heartless, shared and amplified by echo-chambers of the likeminded. That too is done for the greater good, so it is said. But it is a mere gesture of care, lacking love.
We’ve framed all this to make it clear that there’s a gap in our ethics. What’s lacking is the fostering and valuing of virtues, and in particular of love, compassion, care. Without these qualities in ourselves and others, we lose a crucial foundation of ethical communities.
This provides one way to think about CARE: as a fostering and valuing of virtues, love and compassion. That could also be seen as a contribution to an ongoing conversation in art. In the 2000s, relational aesthetics, which in some guises was an extension of performance art into a social context, became a topic of fraught debate. Critics, such as Claire Bishop, pointed out that it provided occasions for convivial community, but did nothing to solve real-world tensions. From the point of view we’ve sketched out, CARE suggests a solution to this: fostering compassion, sympathy, attention, commitment. Put so simply, that might sound glib. But it is the missing piece of many puzzles today, in life and art. It is something we need to remember when lockdowns and other restrictions and anxieties physically part us from one another. In these circumstances, care becomes more tenuous and more important than ever.