Dark art from being stalked for 25 years

Jane Prophet’s exhibition Trauma, about her personal experiences of being stalked, investigates the nature of obsession and is guided by empathy

Jane Prophet’s artworks Second Skin: Straitjacket & Parka in the exhibition Trauma at the Science Gallery, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Here’s an exercise in empathy: the next time you’re dealing with someone who is a little off, or maybe downright rude, try to imagine what’s going on in that person’s mind. Maybe it’s a colleague, a loved one, a family member or a stranger in a shop; but how easy is it to put yourself in their shoes? And how much more difficult might that be if they’re not merely frustrating, but delusional or psychotic, and if their behaviour towards you goes beyond the annoying to become dangerous and threatening?

British artist Jane Prophet is better known for work that explores intersections between science, art and technology. Technosphere, launched in 1995, was a virtual environment made in collaboration with Gordon Selley that allowed users to create creatures, release them into the "wild' and watch them interact. A current project in collaboration with Andreas Roepstorff at the Interacting Minds lab in Aarhus, Denmark, uses fMRI brain scanning to explore whether those artworks historically known as memento mori really do enable us to contemplate death.

But for the past 25 years, Prophet has also been the victim of a stalker, and more recently she began to make a series of works in an attempt to understand the mind of the person who had had such an invasive and unwelcome impact on her life. Initially, the works, which are currently on show at Dublin’s Science Gallery, were not made to be exhibited, but as the project developed, she began to see them as an investigation of psychosis and her refusal to categorise the behaviour of her stalker (whom she refers to throughout our conversation as “this man”) as completely alien and other.

Prophet is small and intense, with choppy red hair and large dark eyes. She narrates her experience in a calm, measured way, dwelling on the rational. “One of the things that has been difficult for people around me,” she says, “is that I’ve always felt it very important to reassert this man’s civil liberties. If I broadly think human rights and civil liberties are important, but in this case think, ‘Yes, but this man is scaring me, so please take him off the streets,’ then that’s deeply problematic.”


Stalker as victim

Nevertheless, she goes on to balance these values with forensic psychologist Lori Bisbey’s advice that early therapeutic intervention is vital. “If someone has a powerful delusion, sustained over years, after the four-year mark it’s very hard to intervene and unravel that delusion”, she says. Looked at that way, the stalker is victimised by his own illness.

Prophet’s level of empathy is hard-won. “I don’t think it was there to begin with. I think I felt really conflicted, and the starting point for the work was that I was very frightened a lot of the time. My studio was a safe place, I guess. But I also can see that when I told my story, and I use that phrase deliberately, it upset people that loved me. It traumatised them.”

As she speaks, I notice a distancing from some of the events, which began some time after she broke up with a boyfriend at the age of 17. “There was no problem for a while. In fact, he said to me, ‘You need to leave, because I don’t know what I’m going to do to you’, which was very astute. So I did. Straight away.”

Letters began to arrive, and there were phone calls and threats; there was an attempted abduction. This is referenced in the Science Gallery exhibition as Second Skin: Straitjacket & Parka (2013); the hooded parka "this man" wore has been remade with disturbingly long sleeves: a disembodied shape, endlessly threatening, but also endlessly reaching out for something that can't be grasped.

“There was a crown court case in process,” Prophet says. “The man in question escaped from a medium-security unit. There was a national manhunt to capture him. I had to leave home under police protection. It was all very dramatic.”

The thing is, as she describes these events, her words are anything but dramatic. It’s like she’s telling someone else’s rather banal story. When I shared my own family story of a stalker – involving letters, relentless phone calls and a break-in – with her earlier in our interview, I had said, “No, I wasn’t upset; it was all very abstract”. But of course it wasn’t. Reaching back to that time, and unpicking the protective walls my mind had built up, I now know it was anything but. It was deeply frightening.

“Making it banal puts it outside ourselves,” says Prophet. “And we distance ourselves from things by turning them into stories, sometimes funny stories. But also, we’re complicated people and let’s hope we can have multiple simultaneous responses, we can see the pathos and the humour. I don’t want to ever not be that person. But how do we also remain authentic?”

Sweetheart, come

Her own answer to this dilemma was revealed through the process of making her art. Bad Hand (2013) comprises a small table and an old-fashioned anglepoise lamp; projected on to the table is a sheet of paper, covered with layers of writing, so thick as to be indecipherable. The piece was made in homage to Emma Hauck, a psychiatric patient whose letters were later and rather questionably exhibited as art. One, written circa 1909, carries the words "Sweetheart, come" over and over again.

Prophet chose a dark and silent room. “I went in feeling very self-conscious, very fake,” she says. “And it’s a simplistic idea, but if I were to write compulsively, would I too experience psychosis? Because we’re all capable of it. Chemically we’re not that different.” That revelation is at the heart of Prophet’s work. “The approach to the works is about saying ‘It could be me, it could be me that’s obsessed, me that’s deluded, so maybe there’s not so much of a difference’.” As anyone in the first throes of romantic love, or experiencing a broken heart can attest, the urge to almost overconnect with another can be strong.

“Right now I can calibrate. Right now I know not to act out. But what if your delusion doesn’t have that moderating voice? What if your paranoid moment doesn’t have the voice that says ‘Of course not’, or what if you do have a really loud voice in your head that’s telling you something else?”

Going in to her dark space to write, Prophet suddenly knew what she wanted to say. “It wasn’t ’Sweetheart come’, but ‘Leave me alone’. Fascinatingly I became in the moment very quickly. And I felt many emotions, sad, angry, a kind of rage, calm, rage again, and there was an almost hypnotic effect. As long as I kept writing, different emotions would come and go.”

The third work in the series, Manifestations (2013), is a set of frames containing fragments from her stalker's letters, and her attempts to abstract some of his terms or the objects he describes into different meanings. "I haven't focused on the explicit, the violent, the gory aspect to the letters. By focusing on the banal, or the unusual – I went to a charity shop and I saw a black clothes model of you [ . . .] – I'm looking at a shared reality, but one that's different for all of us." She pauses. "What would it take for my perspective just to be shifted a little?"

As we talk, Prophet’s empathy opens the space for a greater understanding. We don’t always have a choice to control our behaviour. “Who would wish on anybody that that person would be obsessed, would abandon independent thought and focus their life on another person who is unattainable to them. That’s a terrible situation,” she says. “How awful it must be to live like that.”


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