Is it possible to talk about empathy directed at a thing?

A few weeks ago I visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and the exhibition Pink Caviar – New Acquisitions 2009-2011. I watched the video work Bodies of Society by the Swedish architect and performance artist Klara Lidén.

To the sound of pop music we see a small, empty room where a bicycle is leaning against the wall while the actor, armed with an iron bar, is moving around in the room – watching the bicycle, circling it, behaving curious, watchful and threatening.

I sense what is to come, that the actor at any moment is going to take a swing at the bike. Watching the scene I find myself getting tense with anticipation.

At the first blow I find myself giving a jump. The feeling I get is something like the tingling you can get when you just barely have avoided falling on the stairs or hitting your toe on the table-leg – relieved that you didn’t. I’m very grateful that I’m not in the “bike’s shoes”.

The text that accompanies the work likens the actor to a bullfighter, “she dances around the animal that must die”, while I associate the artist with a torturer or a bully. (Note that the writer of the text associates to an animal instead of a human victim.) Either way I find myself identifying with the bike and not with the human actor, and my fear of being hit in the same way as the bike is manifested in my body. What I see makes my body react to the tactile possibilities or potential risks that the iron bar implies, and all this from watching violence directed at a “dead” thing. I assume that the artist would appreciate this kind of effect.

Some argue that it isn’t possible to apply the concept of empathy to objects – it only applies to the relation between living creatures. What then can we call the feelings I have towards the bike where I perceive my body tensing as I wait for the first hit, and what about the face I make when the first blow finds it’s mark? If it is the artist’s wish to evoke these kinds of reactions in the spectator (on this I can only speculate of course), it seems that the possibility to empathize with inanimate objects is presupposed.

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