‘Intertwined’ is the first result of a new project that was initiated by SEA Foundation as part of the programme on art and sustainability. In this project, two artists are invited to participate in a collaborative research project, focusing respectively on one of the programme’s 12 folds. The programme aims to find common ground for collaboration, sharing knowledge, and to give artists a new impulse for their practice. Participating artists meet each other, converse, probe, investigate and come to a conclusion, leaving both form and content to the duo working on the theme.
As a first fold, SEA Foundation focuses on the theme of empathy. We invited artists Eva Spierenburg (1987, NL) and Jesse van den Berg (1996, NL) to meet and work together on an investigation into empathy. Empathy is defined by contemporary researchers in two ways: on the one hand, there is ‘cognitive empathy’ which refers to our ability to know what another feels or perhaps thinks; the other type is ‘affective empathy’ which refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions. Empathy in this definition seems to be mainly about the other. Frans de Waal describes in his book The Age of Empathy that empathy usually starts with an instinctive somatic reaction to the situation of another. It’s a kind of primal mechanism to relate one’s own body to an observed body, to react physically to something that is not happening to one’s own body.
The origin of empathy derives from the German Einfühlung. When researchers in the early 1900s tried to translate the word they chose to draw on the Greek “em” for “in” and “pathos” for “feeling”, referring to the literal translation Einfühlung, meaning ‘feeling-in’. At the time of this research, however, empathy did not refer to the other person’s emotions. To have empathy, was to project one’s feelings into an object, enlivening it or transforming it, or to project one’s imagined feelings onto the world.
This distinction between subject and object was immediately underlined in the first conversations with Eva Spierenburg (she, her) and Jesse van den Berg (they, them). Whereas Van den Berg, from their photographic background where they frequently work with models, immediately thought of the other person and the empathy between photographer and model when talking about the theme ’empathy’; Spierenburg’s thoughts went out to a possible empathic work process in which her materials were handled in an empathic way, wondering ‘Can the artwork be empathic?’.
Jesse van den Berg researches the topic of queerness with a focus on intimacy. Their work is an ongoing exploration of queerness around them. With intimacy being the main focus, Van den Berg looks for ways to express their vision through lens-based media. This intimacy manifests itself in photographic explorations of situations that are normally only experienced in isolation and remain hidden from the outside world. By capturing these intimate moments, an empathic moment is already created between the photographer and the model within the working process, whether Van den Berg is the model themselves or not.
Also in the presentation of their work, empathy and intimacy meet. By playing with the size of their work, the artist invites you to come close or, on the contrary, to keep a distance. It is the semblance of attraction and repulsion that invites the viewer into the intimacy that the artist and model shared during the process. Within this triangular relationship, an empathic moment then manifests – ‘By showing my work, I hope to arouse empathy in the viewer’. Empathy to the work and thus inseparable towards that which it represents and embodies: that which deviates from the norm and remains underexposed in the mainstream.
After leaving the notion that empathy can only take place from human to human, we can consider what role art can play within this experience. Within a performance, with the presence of the artist, there can be direct intimate contact between creator and spectator. But how does this work when during this encounter the maker is represented by an object, the work of art? Can the artwork in this setting be a mediator, conversing feelings and acting as a bridge between the maker and the beholder? Is the work of art a mirror, onto which the viewer projects their perception to achieve recognition and thus ultimately find common ground with that which the object represents; in essence, its maker?
During the investigation, after some time, Spierenburg distinguished an approach to the subject in her practice and respectively in her personal life. Whereas in her practice it was initially a struggle to find the relation to empathy, in Spierenburg’s personal life empathy is abundantly present: ‘I often experience my sensitivity to the emotions and suffering of others as a burden, especially in situations where there is nothing I can do to help the suffering.’ The last perspective that the artist addresses in her exploration is the boundary between herself and the other. When, with an empathic response, you place yourself in the other person’s shoes, where does this other person begin and where do you cease to exist? Where lies the line between one’s own emotions and those of the other? ‘If we are all largely composed of the same water and intertwined, as in Astrida Neimanis’ essay Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water, how do I contain myself without excluding the other?’
Empathy manifests itself within a relationship. The relationship with another person, the spectator, the creator, the model, the work of art. Two parties are needed to achieve empathy. Both Van den Berg and Spierenburg see that their work can be an intermediary or a bridge in this, the means to an empathic response from the beholder.
Vulnerability is a condition for empathy. Both artists underline the proportionality between the degree of vulnerability in the process and the empathy that can be experienced by the spectator. The more the artists open themselves up in the process, the more room there is for feeling empathy. The artists do not occupy the space, they do not fill it, but invite the other to enter it. As Spierenburg describes: ‘The closer I get to myself, the better I can approach the other.’
By allowing space for the other, empathy for this other arises. By empathising with the other, understanding occurs. Both artists hope that empathy can find its way from them, through their work, to the other to create connection and understanding. Feeling empathy towards someone we consider to be different from ourselves requires effort. Both artists wish for a utopia; for a society in which empathy is a common denominator. They wish for a society where empathy plays a bigger role between people, between all living things, and certainly between groups that don’t consider themselves part of the same kind.
For the presentation of their collaborative research, the artists chose the format of a visual exploration of the subject of empathy in the form of an exhibition. Within the exhibition, the artists question the wide definition of empathy and explore how they take a position within this concept. Instead of presenting you with false answers, Spierenburg and Van den Berg present you with questions. The research they have started is not over yet, it has opened up a new path in their practice which they will continue to explore even after their time at SEA Foundation has ended.
How could you give space for empathy without asking for pity? How does materiality contribute to the experience of empathy? How does the artwork make your body feel things that are not physically happening? To what extent can an artwork even be empathic? – To Spierenburg and Van den Berg, these questions are inescapably connected to the theme of empathy. They do not know the answer to the questions they are asking, rather, they are triggered and inspired by them. The exhibition will be as multifaceted as the subject of empathy itself, showing individual notions and thoughts, as well as shared questions.
Goleman, D. (2008, March 1). Hot to Help. Greater Good.
Lanzoni, S. (2015, October 15). A Short History of Empathy. The Atlantic.
Neimanis, A. (2012). Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water. Undutiful Daughters: Mobilizing Future Concepts, Bodies, and Subjectivities in Feminist Thought and Practice, 85–99.
The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal (2009-09-22)

fold #01 Empathy recommended reading
Jesse and Eva’s Collaborative research based residency
this text originally appeared on the SEA Foundation website
pictures courtesy of SEA Foundation and the artists