Loneliness: It's complicated
Loneliness is a complex experience that carries with a social stigma, and even a sense of shame. I am no stranger to the experience of loneliness and have experienced extended periods of loneliness at various stages of my life.
Many years ago, when I was single, I was having a conversation about this state of loneliness with a writer friend, who was also single. We had a great conversation about the difference between feeling lonely and being alone. Both of us realized that writing and making art are very solitary activities.
Installation view of sculptural poem, Empty Time: The Shadow Epidemic, with blue ink added to the water, at the American Swedish Institute, in Minneapolis, MN
Then, as a new mother, I experienced loneliness in a very different way. Being home with a small being who needs a lot of care, is a different kind of loneliness. And now since COVID, the experience of loneliness has become even more layered with anxieties about health risks added on, and the practice of social distancing and isolation in lockdown.
But there is an undeniable feeling of longing for connection, the lack of which creates a sense of emptiness as if the passing time itself were empty. I named this feeling “Empty Time,” to fully capture the complexity of it. To me, the phrase “Empty Time,” is a fragment of a sentence that suggests solitude, loneliness, and a fugitive feeling about “filling” the time with activities in which one is alone.
Close-up of the sculptural poem, showing TIME and small reed sticks.
The Loneliness Epidemic
Not surprisingly, the CDC has identified loneliness as an emerging epidemic (CDC 2021). The Health Resources and Services Administration has researched the public health implications of loneliness as an epidemic, especially amongst seniors (Holt-Lunstad 2015).
Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s research found that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more damaging than obesity.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General has called loneliness an epidemic that hides in plain sight in his book (Murthy 2020). Particularly poignant is Kristen Radtke’s graphic novel about America’s loneliness epidemic (Radtke 2021).
Counter-memory of COVID
Widespread loneliness is the counter-memory of the Covid pandemic.
Michel Foucault coined the term, “Counter-Memory” to describe a modality of history that opposes history as knowledge or history as truth.
For Foucault, counter-memory was an act of resistance in which one critically examines history and excavates the narratives that have been subjugated, (Foucault 1977).
Children and adults using the reed sticks to make music together with the sculptural poem, Empty Time.
The good news is that there are several initiatives now to address loneliness. The UK-based Campaign to End Loneliness believe that people of all ages need connections that matter. They have started several initiatives including a podcast, conferences, and grassroots campaigns to reduce loneliness (Charity 2021). In the US, Art and Healing has a launched Project UnLonely to offer solutions such as creative expression through the arts, and community partnership (UnLonely Project 2020).
Installation view of sculptural poem, Empty Time: The Shadow Epidemic, with red ink added to the water, at the Museum of American Art, Minneapolis, MN.
Anti-Memorial to Loneliness
My approach to create more awareness about loneliness, and to help people create more connections, is to create a durational site-specific installation comprised of glass vessels arranged to form the phrase "Empty Time." This installation functions as an anti-memorial to loneliness.
James E Young describes an anti-memorial as, “Anti-memorials aim not to console but to provoke, not to remain fixed but to change, not to be everlasting but to disappear, not to be ignored by passers-by but to demand interaction, not to remain pristine but to invite their own violation and not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to drop it at the public’s feet,” (Young 1997).
Close-up of the sculptural poem, Empty Time.
The vessels have hand-blown glass and are inspired from the collections of American Swedish Museum in Minneapolis. The vessels are filled with colored water to varying levels, and the color saturation of the water to create a color gradient from light to dark and back to light. The water is allowed to evaporate over the duration of the installation.
The audience is encouraged to interact with the work by lightly touching the vessels with small bamboo or reed sticks, thus creating musical sounds, and animating the work as well as the space in which it is installed.
It was thrilling to see perfect strangers come together in the installation to create music together.
The fragility of glass is especially appropriate to physically manifest the tenuous premise of Empty Time. The liquid in the bowls metaphorically “fills” the time, but also evaporates, thus alluding to the ebb and flow of being “empty” and “filled”.
Similarly, the echoes of the sounds produced from the bowls “fill” the empty space momentarily and then return it to silence.
Viewers playing music on Empty Time in the Northern Spark Festival, Minneapolis, MN. The water in the glass bowls did not have any ink added.
Empty Time is a continuation in a series of sculptural poems, which are an exercise in paring down to the essentials, to the core, and an attempt at finding the “more in less.”
These text-based artworks play with the fractured nature of language, as a means of communication.
Language can make connections between human beings, and easily break them.These limitations of language can be overcome by art and music, and to create a more connected and less lonely world.
Strangers playing and creating music together, at the Northern Spark Festival, Minneapolis, MN.
2021. CDC. April 30. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html.
Charity, UK. 2021. Campaign to End Loneliness. November 1. https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, by Donald F. Bouchard, 160. Cornell University Press.
Holt-Lunstad, Julianne. 2015. "NIH." Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal for the Association of Psychological Science 227-37. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25910392/.
Murthy, Vivek H. 2020. Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Harper Wave.
Radtke, Kristen. 2021. Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. Pantheon.
2020. UnLonely Project. June 7. https://www.artandhealing.org/.
Young, James E. 1997. "Germany’s Memorial Question: Memory, CounterMemory, and the End of the Monument." The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol 96, no 4 855.