Let’s talk mental health: Alix de Bretagne

Alix de Bretagne creates conceptual art to experience the liberation that comes with self-expression; finding inspiration in the awareness and understanding of the human experience. Through his art, Alix shares his personal experiences with mental health in order to connect with others, whilst challenging stigmas around depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia and suicide. I ask Alix about his latest piece ‘H8 Ball’; what art means to him; and what needs to change in society for people to feel more accepted and supported.

In a sense, my art practice is the result of healing, a weird celebration of the triumph of awareness over trauma. 

Talk to us about your art, when did you start creating conceptual art? And where do you find inspiration for your paintings and conceptual pieces?

I’ve always been very interested in creating. I strongly believe we are all capable of creating art and I am nothing special in this regard. I don’t hold any special talent that enables me to create my art. What I do have is the skill to understand human experience very profoundly and sincerely, and it’s been the focus of my life to continuously develop this skill. 

On the other hand, in my opinion, art is very much about self expression. It took me a long time to come to the realisation that conceptual art is the place where I could express myself how I wanted to do it: I found it incredibly freeing as I could do anything I wanted without worrying about the execution of the piece. I really believe the idea behind the art piece is the most important element in my art, and the execution is just something very subjective and secondary. I don’t feel the pressure to perfect my execution and I am therefore liberated to focus on the things that matter.

As for inspiration, I look at human experience. I have developed my awareness to the point where I can see things as they are, and point to some form of absolute truth. It very much helps that I keep “artist” and “art lover” separate: the artist Alix who cannot see a day go by without thinking of some strange and profound idea and the art lover Alix who is a mere consumer of art. By doing this, I can be both and not have one influence the other. 

Privilege 2 (2018) by Alix De Bretagne
Privilege 2 (2018)
Your art challenges stigmas around mental health and raises awareness to depression, anxiety, suicide and body dysmorphia. Why is it important for you to explore this topic with your art? 

Absolutely right, although I mainly explore mental health challenges, I would say 80% of the fight is against stigma. Mental health stigma is arguably more damaging than the actual challenges as it prevents people from speaking out and seeking help. In my experience, we, as people, are incredibly bad at understanding and acknowledging mental health challenges, and we are even worse at knowing how to talk about them and how to approach healing. We are sold the yoga and meditation practices as if they are magical cures, when in fact they are temporary solutions that only remedy the effects without dealing with the cause. Mindfulness is key, yes, but it’s a starting point, not a solution to the problem. 

Having dealt with depression, suicidal thoughts and body dysmorphia myself, I feel this pain very deeply. My art is an expression of my experience and emotions and I do it in order to connect with others. It’s not important for me to explore this topic; what is important is building connections with my audience, giving them a real chance to talk about shit we just don’t talk about, not profoundly anyway.

As a society, what do you think needs to change in order for people to feel more accepted and supported when expressing who they are and opening up about their mental health?

It’s a complex problem. Firstly, we need to move away from the mentality of quick fixes to complex problems: this is the main issue. Secondly, spare people the “stiff upper lip”, “keep calm and carry on” attitude – this is at the root of mental health stigma. I also believe every battle with mental health challenges is personal and should be treated as such. Planning my own suicide is not something I’m comfortable discussing, not even after years of therapy; so telling someone like me to speak about it openly is just not realistic. 

We need to look at people as the complex beings they are and offer bespoke support; and when I say support I don’t mean Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which is just coping, as opposed to healing. We need to prioritise healing from trauma over bearing the storm, although I appreciate that sometimes bearing the storm is all we can do for the time being. 

One thing that would make a huge difference and something we can all do is to completely dismantle the notion that people with mental health challenges are sick: there is nothing wrong about experiencing mental health challenges. Besides the fact that this notion creates shame and stigma, it’s not true. Mental health challenges come from trauma, and trauma is something we all have – so we can’t all be sick.

H8 Ball (Readymade, 2020) by Alix De Bretagne
H8 Ball (Readymade, 2020)
Tell us about a couple of your conceptual pieces, especially ‘The H8 Ball’ 

The H8 Ball (2020) is a play on a very popular toy which we can all recognise. I wanted to use its familiarity in the service of discussing the thoughts that go through everyone’s mind. I wanted to give people the opportunity to acknowledge that although these thoughts are corrosive and damaging, they are also part of everyone’s experience. It’s very important to know that you’re not alone in order to feel confident to start the healing process. 

The Scale (2019) is one interesting readymade as well: I’ve seldom seen people more uncomfortable with a piece of art. Some people find it funny, but most of my audience is terrified of it. Everyone has got their own reasons, but a common thread I’ve identified is their reluctance to acknowledge the systemic issue we face in our society – after all, we all just want to fit in as much as we can and get on with our lives. “Too fat” or “too skinny” are both attitudes that strive all around us everyday; what this readymade does is materialise these notions with the ambition to further highlight how absolutely ridiculous they are. 

What is important is building connections with my audience, giving them a real chance to talk about shit we just don’t talk about, not profoundly anyway

Walk us through your creative process, what are the different stages of your work? 

In terms of my conceptual art, it all starts with the idea and luckily I’ve got plenty, some more relevant than others. I then spend a great deal of time in the discovery phase: analysing, understanding, feeling and internalising the idea. After that, it’s just a matter of figuring out the right medium to use in order to express it. No limits.

I sometimes create abstract paintings as well as a way to practice execution and create something visually appealing to me. Abstracts are not really my remit, but I do enjoy the practice of painting and sculpting – it’s a great way to not think of anything and just create. 

The Stuff Of Nightmares by Alix De Bretagne
The Scale
Where and how do you like to work? And do you have any art rituals?

I am a big fan of arte povera and I live very modestly. I work where I can and I only care about being alone, wherever that is. I don’t have art rituals.

How does art and creativity affect your overall well-being? And how do you feel when you create?

I create because I have to. It’s not just an outlet, it’s my life. I just cannot imagine not doing it. Creating art doesn’t do much for my mental health, but not doing it would be catastrophic. I must admit that when I have a dry spell, when I recognise that no ideas are flowing, I know for sure I am depressed. In a sense, my art practice is the result of healing, a weird celebration of the triumph of awareness over trauma.  

We need to prioritise healing from trauma over bearing the storm, although I appreciate that sometimes bearing the storm is all we can do for the time being. 

What are your hopes and dreams as an artist?

I just want to be able to do it for as long as I can. I don’t care about selling it or it being a success and I don’t submit it to competitions – it’s just irrelevant for what I do. Having said that, I do care about my art reaching others. I very much try to put my art in front of as many people as possible and I welcome their thoughts, good, bad or indifferent.

Hope (Readymade, 2021) by Alix De Bretagne
Hope (Readymade, 2021)
Anything coming up that we can look out for?

I am working on finding venues that would welcome my art installation “Solace” (2020). I think that after all we’ve been through, a lot of people could really benefit from experiencing it. You can see more about the art installation here.

And lastly, what does art mean for you?

Art is an expression of our most fundamental human experiences whilst filling our life with beauty and meaning. Aside from that, I’m reminded of what Robin Williams said in Dead Poets Society: 

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Art is what we stay alive for. 

To view more of Alix’s work:

Website: www.debretagne.art

Instagram: @alixdebretagne

H8 (Readymade, 2020) by Alix De Bretagne
H8 Ball (Readymade, 2020)

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