Science is often excluded when examining the more ethereal realms of love and emotion. How can a discipline that seeks to rationalise and explain, offer insight into the largely mysterious questions of how we love who we love. And why?
The Harry Harlow Project, presented by Full Tilt at The Arts Centre, attempts to shed some light on these issues. Written and performed by James Saunders and directed by Brian Lipson, the work centres around Harry Harlow, an American psychologist whose experiments with rhesus monkeys revolutionised views on early childhood development.
Harlow devised studies in which baby monkeys were removed from their mothers and the mothers replaced with models. One model was made of wire and dispensed food. The other mother was made of soft cloth but didn’t dispense food. Harlow found that even though the cloth mother didn’t provide nourishment, the baby monkeys infinitely preferred it over the wire mother, clinging onto it for comfort and safety.
Harlow confirmed that touch and affection to newborn and infant children was essential to their mental and emotional development. This may seem stunningly obvious today, but in the fifties these findings were ground-breaking. The dominant belief was in a behaviourist school of psychology, in which excessive parental contact would spoil the child, making it ‘soft’ or ‘in extreme cases homosexual’.
The set is starkly clinical, with fluorescent lights and white walls, portraying Harlow’s spartan existence. A few clues are scattered around the space, revealing vices of alcohol and cigarettes. Harlow is trapped similarly to his primate subjects, pacing his confines and espousing theories on the nature of love and connection, yet in reality he had little to do with his own wife and children.
Security cameras in the corners of the space create double and triple replicas of Harlow, depicting his search for himself within his work. The ingenious projection sequences were designed by Martyn Coutts with a pulsating soundtrack by Kelly Ryall.
As Harlow’s experiments became crueller, his own mental state disintegrated. Harlow’s battle with depression was reflected in his attempts to manifest clinical depression in his subjects. In the work this results in a portrayal of macabre absurdity, as the monkeys turn the tables to become instead Harlow’s tormentors.
Saunders depicts Harlow as an awkward man with an extremely dry wit. There are elements of a science lecture as direct address is employed and we are offered glimpses into Harlow’s family life and his troubled relationship with his own children.
Some of the physical language employed in the piece is somewhat stilted and the hi-tech projection effects threaten at times to overshadow the lo-fi fifties aesthetic, but ultimately serves the context of the work.
The Harry Harlow Project offers a valuable insight into a fascinating and conflicted character. Love is explored through science and by a man possessed and ultimately consumed by his life’s work.
FULLTILT & Insite Arts present
The Harry Harlow Project
Written and performed by James Saunders
Directed by Brian Lipson
Venue: Fairfax Studio
Dates: 26 Nov - 5 Dec 2009
Tickets: $23 - $28
Bookings: 1300 182 183