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Empathy and the Artefact in Contemporary Art: How does the use of found and familiar objects within contemporary art practice create an empathic dialogue between artist and viewer?



"This research paper critically analyses the function of the object within contemporary art as a tool for creating empathy. It considers how objects are perceived as ‘phenomena of shared experience’ (Owens, 2020: p.432) which, in turn, provokes an intangible shared dialogue between artist and audience. The paper divulges case studies surrounding the creative practices of artists Cathy Wilkes and Rachel Whiteread; both of whom are known to utilise familiar objects within their process in order to materialise emotive narratives. Whilst embarking on this line of inquiry, the paper critically explores these artists’ practices in relation to the psychoanalytic theories of Melanie Klein’s ‘part-objects’ and Sigmund Freud’s the ‘uncanny’, along with Psychologist, Jean Piaget’s theory of developmental ‘semiotic’ function. Critical analysis given by Academic Writers, Antony Hudek, Stephanie Owens, Joan Gibbons and Uros Cvoro also aid our ability to unpack this somewhat subjective area of research. At the same juncture, Art Critic, John Berger’s theories surrounding perception and Art Historian, Susan Best’s summarised comprehension of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical theories on trace also encourage our understanding. These theoretical underpinnings allow for symbolic discernment of how both Whiteread and Wilkes utilise materiality in order to externalise their internal world, whilst drawing out the inner workings of their audiences’ psyche. The research paper also considers ways in which these artists both bestow and abstain from providing context when utilising objects within their creative outputs. In turn, this forces consideration to be made about how the viewer’s own experiences are played upon in order for the work to be read and understood.


Historical artistic contexts that precede these artists’ practices, specifically Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Readymade’ and the Surrealist movement, both of the early 20th Century, are investigated early on in the paper. Particularly, the ways in which Surrealist and Duchampian practices paved the way for later emerging conceptual artists’, such as Wilkes and Whiteread, to encapsulate emotive contexts through tapping into notions of trace, memory, personification and narrative."

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