Self Help Island- A Review

The Turner House in Penarth was recently home to the Self-Help show, created by illustrator Chris Glynn and poet Luca Paci, a collaborative exhibition of text, images, hanging books, music and lobsters. Here, Chris and Luca explore the idea of “self-help” in our culture, especially since the pandemic. The exhibition, having appeared in Pontcanna and Penarth, will now move to Milan.

I was invited to meet with the creators of the exhibition, Chris Glynn and Luca Paci to discuss the show. Unsure of what to expect, Self Help I(s)land follows the narrative of two people shipwrecked on an island and together they encounter a raft of characters from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, one of the most famous storms in literature. They explore how being wrecked on an island after a storm was much like how we all felt during lockdown.

“The show reflects upon some of the challenges of the past three years, taking a sideways look at the pros and cons of self-help books and self-help culture.”

The exhibition is split over the two floors of The Turner House. The ground floor had displays of messy desks, puzzles left unfinished with pieces scattered on the floor, and a wall of illustrations by Chris which will grow and evolve as the show goes on. And above your head, a hanging mobile of books, which from above look like they’re floating in the water after arriving at Self-Help Island.

“One woman described it as friendly. Another said he felt like he was coming home.”

I remember thinking when I first walked into the space that it felt familiar but I couldn’t figure out why. The chaotic desk and shelves of books and trinkets reminded me of my own home- in the best possible way.

Upstairs is what you can find on Self-Help I(s)land itself. Old typewriters, tarot cards, playing blocks (for both children and adults). On the wall there is a collection of to-do lists. Some are scrawled and frantic with serious things to do, others are silly and playful. One of my favourites included: “Travel to a foreign country, practise magic…”

When Chris asked me if I liked to make to-do lists, I said no. I always feel very restricted by them and feel that my day was incomplete if I couldn’t do everything on the list. Chris went on to talk about how to make lists, is often linked to the need for control. Something we all scrabbled to maintain during lockdown.

Books and the written word feature very heavily in the show, and the books chosen are very specific. All are a variety of different self-help books and culture theories; some can be seen as helpful, but others have been known to do more harm than good. When talking to Luca Paci about the lobster that you can find sat on an old phone, he explained it was from the psychologist Jordan Peterson: “He used lobsters to explain why human hierarchies are not found in culture but are natural. Biologically, us humans share DNA with the lobster.” He went on to explain that people like Jordan Peterson who profess to writer books to “help” society, can often have a negative effect if interpreted by the wrong people. That is not to say that all self-help books have the potential to be damaging, just that to cling to them as gospel instead of taking control of our own self-help is not necessarily the right way to move forward. I found this idea fascinating and was thinking about it long after I left.

What I loved about this exhibition was its ability to grow with time. Having been at The Turner House since 10 February 2023, the exhibition will not be the same at the end as when it started, which I see as a reflections for how we were before and after lockdown. And by running art and poetry workshops with adults and children alike within the exhibition, and displaying the resulting work, the show’s progression was fascinating. It is a collaboration of not just different artists, but of different forms of art- “there is poetry, collaging, paintings, illustrations, even a little sculpturing.”

To close, Chris says of the exhibition: “So often different kinds of artists do not mix and that’s what I wanted from this space. For poets, painters, illustrators, musicians to all come together to create and appreciate and actually talk to each other.”

The Self Help Show was an incredible depiction of the troubles of lockdown and the effect it had on us all. But also how important it is to keep going and to find familiarity and connection in the people and places around us.