Gallery show uses art to give empathy a shot in the arm

''Intersection'' by Juliane Shibata
"Intersection" by Juliane Shibata is a ceramic installation piece that depicts two overlapping circles of male and female persimmon flowers.
Courtesy Instinct Art Gallery

The ability to see through the eyes of another is a quality that Thoreau once described as miraculous. A new show at Instinct Art Gallery in Minneapolis hopes to inspire that kind of empathy in everyday life.

Gallery director John Schuerman knows that humans sometimes shut off their empathy, because he catches himself doing it. He regularly walks down Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis to work. Over the years the street has become increasingly populated by homeless people asking for handouts.

"I know they are going to ask me for money so I avoid contact, purposefully," he said. "The reality is that I'm just choosing not to engage, and not to get pulled too far into their world."

Schuerman heard about a 30-year study of American college students that found empathy was on a steady decline. The report inspired him to put out a call for art. The result is "Humanly Possible: The Empathy Show," which brings together photography, painting, sculpture and video to comment on human empathy from all sorts of different angles.

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"We're trying to broaden the definition of empathy a little bit," he said, "and we're inviting people to the show to exercise their humanity."

Artist Peter Nelson literally put other people's words in his own mouth when he videotaped himself lip-synching — with uncanny accuracy — monologues by nine different women. The viewer is left to wrestle with the conflict between a video that looks masculine and sounds feminine.

Artist Nooshin Hakim took remnants from a riot in Iran — a shoe and a couple of rocks — and grew bright blue crystals on them, transforming items that had been thrown in anger into objects of contemplative beauty.

Detail of Romeo and Juliet by Christopher Harrison
Detail of "Romeo and Juliet" by Christopher Harrison. Harrison paints in north Minneapolis, and says his paintings depict what he sees people going through.
Courtesy Instinct Art Gallery

Closer to home, painter Christopher Harrison contributed several portraits of north Minneapolis residents. The neighborhood is home to his studio, and to the continuing protests over the police killing of 24-year-old Jamar Clark. People in the paintings have open wounds, or their flesh appears to be melting. Harrison said the portraits are "symbols of how people in urban neighborhoods deal with certain situations, and how that affects them psychologically, physically and emotionally."

Harrison said for him, the melting of flesh is an indication of what he believes will ultimately be a positive transformation. He says he hopes people will look at what's going in north Minneapolis with greater empathy.

"People just want to be heard," he said. "I think it's really important that we regain that humanity and humility, and be open to other people's feelings and thoughts."

"Humanly Possible: The Empathy Show" is on view at Instinct Art Gallery through Jan. 16. This Saturday, the gallery welcomes visitors to contribute to another project. From 3 to 6 p.m., people are invited to sit in a recording booth and sing a lullaby or other song of comfort. The artist Nooshin Hakim will send the recordings to groups of Syrian refugees.

Correction (Dec. 2, 2015): An earlier version incorrectly identified the type of flowers in a photo caption.