Wednesday 24 July 2019

Breaking down walls with words and why we must take our minds to the gym

Christina Reihill believes in the value of commonality of experience, says Emily Hourican, especially when it comes to mental health

The writing is on the wall: Christina Reihill at one of the WallWalks installations in Dublin.
The writing is on the wall: Christina Reihill at one of the WallWalks installations in Dublin.

Emily Hourican

The fiery creativity that comes off Christina Reihill is the kind of white heat you only get when the message is true, and the need to express it absolute. A writer, poet and installation artist, Christina crosses mediums easily, the better to give expression to the fundamental beliefs that she has earned through the years, from her own experiences - of drug and alcohol addiction and painful recovery - and from the vast reading and learning she has done around questions about the soul, and the soul's choices.

First there was Soul Burgers, an exquisite, award-winning book of poetry. Now comes WallWalks - It Started With A Word. Described as "a positive mental-health initiative, with attitude," Christina explains, "we all face walls in our lives, whether its a cancer diagnosis, the loss of a child, a parent, a job or a dream. The thinking behind WallWalks is to share our experience and our way of getting through, not to isolate those suffering."

Christina has taken over a gallery space in Blackrock - kindly donated by the owner until such a time as the building is sold - where she has produced a mesmerising, challenging installation. Through a small letterbox opening in an otherwise blank wall, we peer. Inside, a long room floats in quiet darkness, except for a clutch of mannequins wearing black. Stencilled across one vast, raspberry-coloured wall is 'The Best Present Is Presence', the white letters standing stark against the deep pink. At the far end, another word blazes through the soft gloom: 'Connect'.

As always, timing is everything. "Christmas really highlights all the things we don't have. This is about what we do have," Christina points out. So what exactly is it that we have? This is where it gets interesting. What we have, she believes, is the commonality of our experience.

There are, she says, too many victim narratives, too many labels: 'depressive,' 'alcoholic,' 'suicidal', that avoid the most simple of truths - we are all human, and these are simply the conditions of our human nature. "Through history, these things have had different labels - sin, neuroses, hysteria. The thing is, human nature is neurotic. It just is. So let's celebrate our strengths instead, in the belief that by facing the walls of our vulnerability, by refusing to be ashamed of it, together we will get through this. This is an attempt to challenge everyone. We all deal with issues of addiction, depression, suicide, loneliness, grief. That is the universality of suffering." This, as she points out, is both a beautiful and a tragic thing.

"We need to start viewing mental health like we've started to think about the gym," she says. "No matter how unfit we are, however immobilised, we can be fitter."

WallWalks is something that will happen within the gallery space, but also out in the community, around Shankill and Pearse Dart stations, for now. Irish Rail and DLR have seen the power of the project and given over space to it. These walls are adorned with large panels bearing simple words, carefully chosen: 'Connect,' 'Believe,' 'Hello'. Displayed alongside them is the website. In this way, those who see and engage can join a further conversation around what the words, and the concepts they convey, mean to them. They are encouraged to join in, by posting photographs relating to their experiences of the project.

The best photos will win vouchers from some of the partners in the enterprise. These partners - Educogym, RDC Communications, Khan, Tutor Images, Last Stop Carpets in Dun Laoghaire, Colortrend, Ampersand Design - along with the tireless work and commitment of Soul Burger collaborators Marek Chmieleawski and Przemystaw Kasprzak, are what have made the project possible.

"For some people, the word 'Believe,' for example, may bring angry thoughts," Christina explains, "but at least we are engaging conversation on the topic, offering up the question, in an informed way."

The plan is to roll the project out nationally in the New Year. Because, despite the energy of goodwill, it is all too easy to feel helpless around the idea of promoting better mental health - what to do, we wonder? Where to start? Right here, with Believe, Connect, Hello.

Sunday Independent

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