The Mystery of Tears @ Metropolitan Arts Centre

Belfast, 24th October – 26th January 2014

Artists: Bas Jan Ader, Marco Anelli, Sophie Calle, Jesper Just, Shirin Neshat, Bill Viola


In The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin lists three reasons for the secretion of tears:

“The primary function of the secretion of tears, with some mucus, is to lubricate the surface of the eye, and a secondary one, as some believe, is to keep the nostrils damp, so that the inhaled air may be moist, and likewise to favour the power of smelling. But another, and at least equally important function of tears is to wash out particles of dust or other minute objects which may get into the eyes” (Darwin, 1872: 169).

These explanations are essentially physiological, and Darwin made explicit that he assumed no other, more fundamental, reason for weeping. In this respect, Darwin was almost certainly wrong. In recent decades, experts have offered several accounts of how the capacity for tears in humans, takes on additional emotional and psychological significance.

Professor Michael Trimble of University College London’s Institute of Neurology suggests that the emergence of emotional crying is connected with the dawning of self-consciousness and the development of a theory of mind – when early humans first realised their peers were also self-conscious beings. (Why Humans Like To Cry is published by Oxford University Press)

The Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets, who has spent twenty years studying why and when we weep also believes that “Tears are highly symbolic”.

More so than any other form of emotional expression, tears are also subject to shifting cultural and historical readings; symbolising piety and sensitivity in one age, and hysteria and weakness in another.

Whatever the precipitant, however, there is a widespread belief in contemporary culture that crying is cathartic. However, in his new book, Why Only Humans Weep, Vingerhoets argues that even this commonly held notion may be simply a cultural construct. Although people frequently report feeling better after watching something like a Hollywood ‘tearjerker’ with a friend, when asked to watch a similar movie in a laboratory setting they usually report no improvement in mood at all. For Vingerhoets, this is evidence of how therapeutic and cleansing associations with crying are intrinsically linked to collective social experiences.  He says “Tears are less important when you are alone because there is no one to witness them.”

Trimble emphasises this social function of crying, stating that “we should not be afraid of our emotions, especially those related to compassion, since our ability to feel empathy and with that to cry tears, is the foundation of a morality and culture which is exclusively human.” (Why Humans Like To Cry is published by Oxford University Press)

The Mystery of Tears, will present a series of works which I hope will elicit a sincere and powerful shared response on the part of the viewer.  This exhibition will examine the ability of a work of art to move one to tears, whilst questioning why we may have become culturally conditioned to express too readily, and without real or genuine empathy, our emotions and in particular our openness to the act of weeping.



Jesper Just, No Man is an Island II, 2004

Jesper Just, Lasso, 1998

Bas Jan Ader, I’m too sad to tell you, 1971



Marco Anelli, Portraits in the Presence of Marina Abramovic, 2010

Sophie Calle, works from The Last Image and Voir La Mer

Bill Viola, Dolorosa, 2000



Shirin Neshat, Turbulent, 1998