Enni empathy exhibition at Kettle’s Yard is life-enhancing
Enni-Kukka Tuomala, whose exhibition at Kettle’s Yard is on show until July 7, is the world’s first empathy artist.
Enni was born in Finland. So are there lots of empaths in Finland?
“I was born in a small town in Finland,” she replies sunnily over tea at the mow-reopened Castle Hill gallery. “People in Finland are fairly stoical, they have a huge respect for privacy and personal space, which can make them turn away from other people when they should be turning towards them. It comes from a place of love but its manifestation can be unempathic, so there’s a contrast.”
Finland isn’t alone, because what Enni calls “a global empathy deficit” is causing problems right around the world.
She moved to England in 2007 to study classical archaeology and ancient history at the other place. Enni then went on to work as a strategist for Saatchi & Saatchi, and then as a senior strategist at Adam&eveDDB.
“So how we think and feel and act as we do was my job. At that point my artistic practice was something I did on the side.”
Her professional interest in empathy revived when she realised her own ability to empathise started to decline. The turning point came almost six years ago.
“I felt I wanted to evolve my artistic practice and left my job, and refocused by going back to study at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London for two years.”
Her joint MA and MSc was in global innovation design.
“It was studio-based, combining art, design, engineering and technology to start addressing some of the big global challenges we face.”
These challenges include how – and why – we’ve created a set of societies that cause so much suffering to people, animals and the Earth’s ability to host us as a species.
“There’s a global empathy deficit which sits behind a lot of the difficulties we’re facing,” she explains. “That deficit has been spoken about by Barack Obama and by Pope Francis, who called it ‘the globalisation of indifference’. Our ability to understand other people’s perspectives, and to integrate those perspectives into our own, has never been lower.”
Enni says her role as an empathy artist is “to make the ephemeral and abstract visible”.
She adds: “We are starting to realise empathy is good but we don’t understand how to get it. We know we need more of it but it’s not helped by seeing it as a soft, feminine, ‘fuzzy’ soft skill, but that disregards its transformative and radical power to help us live together in a more emotionally connected and equitable way.
“Researchers are yet to agree on one definition, but for my practice I define empathy as understanding someone else’s perspective and experiences and, in some cases, feeling what they feel, adopting their emotional state.”
So why is empathy on the run?
“An empathy deficit means the inability, or the declining ability, to understand another’s perspective,” Enni replies. “So yes, we are arguably more connected today through technology, but it’s a fallacy of connection because it’s less emotionally connected.
“It’s now possible to live in a world which we’ve wholly created ourselves, so we’re living in these echo chambers where everything we know, think and feel is reflected back at us. All the possibilities of surprise encounters, of meeting with strangers, have all but been eliminated during the pandemic.”
So do we have empathy, or do we discover it?
“Both,” replies Enni. “We are predisposed to have more empathy for people who like us but empathy is not a constant, it changes through our lives and through the day, depending on factors such as stress levels.”
Enni has been artist in residence at Kettle’s Yard, running the Campaign for Empathy for the past year, starting March 2020.
“The artists in residence post is an open call so I put in an application in late 2019,” says Enni. “I’d visited just before and fell in love with the place, not just with Kettle’s Yard and Jim Ede’s vision, but with the opportunity to work with local communities.
“I had the interview in early 2020 and was selected by the Kettle’s Yard community panel of local North Cambridge residents.”
The residency started in March, so it began just as the whole world went into lockdown – but the vision for the Campaign for Empathy was already in place.
“I’ve been so grateful to be able to continue the residency, though it’s all been done remotely. I’ve created physical activity packs and materials, and videos, run workshops via Zoom, connected over the phone, briefed the teachers... it adapted very quickly last year and it’s been extremely meaningful to have had these experiences and connections in the most extreme circumstances. I am so grateful to everyone who has taken part.”
Arbury Primary School and the North Cambridge Academy were involved in ‘The Empathy Manifesto’, one of the seven pieces of artwork on display for the Empathy Objects exhibition across Kettle’s Yard and North Cambridge. All the artworks were created through a process of collaboration with local residents.
“We started with a vision to make North Cambridge the most empathic community in the UK, and I know empathy will live on in the hearts of local people beyond the campaign.”
For Enni, the work goes on. Next up she wants to work on humanity’s empathy with the natural world – starting with trees.
“One of the symptoms of our loss of empathy is we’ve lost our connection with the wider natural environment, so trees are seen as being there to serve us, but in reality we’re only guardians of the trees.”
Enni has also worked with the Finnish Parliament to bring empathy into politics.
“My work in the Finnish parliament started from the discovery that power, especially sustained power, can physically block the brain from feeling empathy. It’s a physiological phenomenon that some researchers are comparing to traumatic brain injury. It’s difficult for people in power to even try and empathise that’s why we need tools and support systems to actively train our empathy muscles and practice empathy in new situations towards new people.”
‘Empathy Objects’ runs until July 7 at Kettle’s Yard, which is open Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm.