Colorful assemblages containing lightbulbs, string, glass vials, plastic bottles, metal handles, and other recycled materials make up the entirety of the exhibit, Tools for the Mind, currently on view at the BlackRock Center for the Arts. The exhibit contains twenty-four participatory artworks, by local artist Heloisa Escudero, that aim to engage and heal the mind.
At first glance, the exhibit might appear to be a child’s playroom. Escudero’s works contain many bright colors, especially primary hues and pastels, graphic symbols like arrows and stars, and even a few toys (e.g. plastic chains and makeshift wagons). Rather than give these works individual abstract titles, the artist chose to number them. Simple instructions are included in the wall labels like “gently move yellow chain using hooks to create a design” in Tools for the Mind No. 12 and “rearrange the small blue, red and teal shapes” in Tools for the Mind No. 14. The work is recursive in that the viewer must change the composition a previous viewer had created. While, on a physical level, these works are easy to approach, on a conceptual level, they can be difficult to understand. It is difficult to derive meaning from the unfamiliar arrangement of familiar objects. These puzzles are not meant to be solved but rather engaged.
Other works in this exhibit are meant to be more explicitly therapeutic. To this end, Tools for the Mind No. 11 was made to help viewers articulate their emotions. The work tasks the viewer with choosing one of nine circular prints that best reflects their mood. The choice is made by moving a magnetic vial onto a magnet below one of the prints. Each print contains several different colors that describe two cropped images of light bulbs in different orientations on a white background. Again, what at first seems like a simple task is actually a bit more confounding: “am I feeling like the diagonal lightbulbs that are mostly red and orange with a little bit of yellow, or do I feel more like the vertical lightbulbs that are orange and purple with hints of red and green?” Akin to a Rorschach test, but with multi-colored lightbulbs instead of black blobs, the artist asks the viewer to pinpoint their emotions with unconventional organizations of color and line. The work might be easier to engage if the viewer were made to choose between solid colors like red or blue.
The participatory aspect of this exhibit is made plain in Tools for the Mind No. 15, which consists of a long rope stretched across a wall, held up by red hooks with silver ends that hold small bundles of red string. The viewer is asked to choose one of these red threads and place it anywhere on the rope. Instead of erasing or modulating what a previous viewer had created (as in Tools for the Mind No. 12 and No. 14), what results is an artwork that is the sum of every viewer’s intervention.
Using this artwork to deal with challenging emotions like fear requires a bit more physical exertion on the part of the viewer. For instance, in Tools for the Mind No. 20, one must crouch down and measure out nine inches of yellow yarn—which represents a fear of choice—and stuff it into a “pandora’s box” full of all previous participants’ fears. The result, one hopes, is to rid oneself of those fears through visualization and displacement. Clearly, the ridding of fears is not meant to be a daunting endeavor. As part of the exhibit, the artist led a performance work Suffocate with Your… which had viewers draw their fears on a stool, place a rag on top of it, and then sit on it and erase the fear through “suffocation.” The artist centers inclusivity and playfulness in her challenge to the mind. The last work in the exhibit (No. 24) allows the viewer to contemplate the joys in life.
Escudero’s Brazilian nationality and emphasis on participatory art that is therapeutic recalls the work of another Brazilian artist: Lygia Clark. Clark’s participatory works from the 1960s and 1970s focused on engaging the senses (sight, smell, sound, touch) in order to bring about healing. Her therapy was one that focused on bodily awareness and the feeling of connection with other people or objects. By contrast, Escudero’s use of participation is about contemporary notions of agency and inclusivity and gives viewers methods of visualizing, managing, handling, or manifesting their ideas and emotions. Her artistic therapy highlights individual empowerment with a spirited affect.
The image of the lightbulb, present in each work, unifies the exhibit into a cohesive body. The lightbulb, being a symbol for new ideas, the moment of eureka, and a transition away from darkness, encourages the act of thinking and contemplation. The twenty-four artworks in this exhibit are indeed tools for the mind: each one challenges the viewer to ask, “what is this?” and “why is this?” These are questions that viewers should be asking themselves in today’s anxious political climate, in which it feels like all the rules have changed. It might be time for developing new ways of thinking, and everyone must participate (with a sense of play).
Tools for the Mind is on view through February 22, 2020 in the Kay Gallery at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown, MD 20874.
 The artist performed Suffocate with Your… on Saturday, February 1, 2020.
 This characterization of Lygia Clark’s Relational Objects in Guy Brett, “Lygia Clark: In Search of the Body,” Art in America, Vol. 82, No. 7, July 1994.