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Empathy, You zi and Grayson Perry

August 26, 2012

This might seem a bit out of date now but it’s something I’ve been pondering for a while, since the last workshop. I started a new job just before the workshop at the Tower and I’ve been trying to work out how best to incorporate the network into my work there. Luckily for me, the job is a brand new one. To some extent, it’s up to me what it looks like, which is a pretty priviledged position to be in. Broadly, I work with academics in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield on public engagement; supporting projects that combine academic research with real world applications. These are many and varied and there are some really interesting things happening. You might be interested in this and this which are just two of the projects run by members of the Faculty.  Two things happened in the week after the Tower workshop which made me really thing about the concept of empathy and it’s importance in our interactions with others. They were very different, although started in much the same way, with empathy at their heart. I went to the launch of an exhibition of the the You zi project, part of Storying Sheffield and I saw Grayson Perry’s tapestries about class.

The You zi project ( was a collaboration between academic David Forrest, photographer Gemma Thorpe and a group of Chinese students in Sheffield. It aimed to tell the stories of the students using photographs and film, underpinned by academic research into visual narrative. The results were powerful; incredibly moving, funny and telling a tale which isn’t often told, of what it’s like to be a foreign, specifically Chinese, student in a city like Sheffield. I see Chinese students all the time, but I haven’t once stopped to think about what their experience as a student at the University is like. They are, in David Forrest’s words, ‘paradoxically invisible’ because they are so common, making up the largest group of overseas students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. The visibility afforded by this project was of the students’ own making.  They were true collaborators in that the project worked with them, rather than on behalf of them, to tell their stories. If empathy is something that is experienced within your own context, rather than imagining you are ‘in’ the situation, then the resulting photofilms worked. They created an atmosphere where the voices of the students were paramount. What we were hearing and seeing was their interpretation of their lives and we empathised with that experience, with the highs and lows of being a student in a foreign city thousands of miles away from home. For me, it was a good example of empathy which didn’t stray into sympathy mistaken for empathy. What we need to be able to do is to ‘get’ other people’s experiences, even when they are different to our own.

Grayson Perry was not so successful. His tapestries, the research for which was documented in a Channel 4 series, All in the Best Possible Taste are loosely based on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Tom is replaced by Tim, Bedlam by a car crash, but they both document the rise and then fall of their central character. The works were shown at Victoria Miro and the show has now closed but there are still images on the website.  They’re undeniably beautiful, intricate and colourful, as well as being witty. It was their amusing quality that led me to question whether they could ever be empathetic and to the conclusion that they couldn’t. For all Perry’s working class credentials, they seemed to be aimed at middle class people who could have a laugh at themselves, sympathise with the working classes and be unsympathetic towards the upper classes. The tv programmes followed this line too. On the face of it the project was a collaboration but the end product was all Grayson Perry. Whilst I found the middle class tapestries funny, because they were about people from my own background, I was left wondering whether those from the working classes and the upper classes would feel the same about their portrayal. These tapestries were far harsher in their assessment of what it is to be working or upper class. Perry himself says that he did not want to be judgemental. I’m not convinced that he succeeded.

In these instances, collaboration made the difference. Where co-production was a key part of the process, as in the You zi project, the audience empathise because they are witnessing the story told by the students. Background and experience matter less. None of the participants in Grayson Perry’s project had a say in the final creative output. This was solely the product of his interpretation, which was a very middle class interpretation of his subjects. Rather than empathy the audience recognises itself in some of the work and sympathises or not with the others. You zi was uplifting, positive and thoughtful, Perry just made me feel a bit uneasy and voyeuristic. The workshop really made me think hard about both projects though, and what it was that they were trying to achieve. My conclusion, as after the day at the Tower, is that empathy is hard to get right, but when you do, it really works.

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