"Do you have bipolar?" Sam Kissajukian asks me.
In a second, the interviewee becomes the interviewer.
"I think I probably do?"
And it’s true, although I haven’t been diagnosed. I’ve not been diagnosed with anything, formally. It’s not from lack of trying; but lack of resources, or lack of interest perhaps.
My first major manic episode started in the second half of 2022 and lasted roughly six months. Week after week of excessive drinking, excessive expenditure, running on an average of three hours sleep and for almost the entire period of time, feeling like I was on top of the world. As blurry as the whole episode seems now, I certainly didn't consider it could be mania while I was in it.
Sam Kissajukian had a much more creatively productive manic episode of a roughly similar length of time. Although, somewhat self-induced. “I asked myself what kind of artist I wanted to be. I decided I wanted to paint my psychology and my subconscious, so, stupidly, I flipped my sleep cycle every day by 12 hours so when I was awake I could dream, and when I was asleep I’d be conscious. I could transcribe my dreams and paint them.”
This triggered a full blown manic episode and, for six months, Kissajukian produced painting after painting – on a grand scale and somewhat haphazardly. “I don’t do sketches or anything, I just paint and if I manage to pull it off, if the magic is there that night, it’s great. There’s something very intimidating about painting, especially a big blank canvas. You think, ‘Oh, it’s so nice, if I make a mark I’m going to ruin it’ and if you have no plan, you worry.”
This caution to the wind approach works for him as it stems from his creative background. Kissajukian spent years performing stand-up comedy so his creative processes for each art-form are not entirely distinct. “I was very lucky to find art so late in my life because I had a lot to draw from. I’ve spent 36 years being alive and have so many failures and frustrations over many platforms and comedy really ingrains the notion of failure and being OK with failure into you.”
And this abandonment of fear resulted in 300 paintings in the first 12 months of painting. At his own admission, some great, some not. But always authentic. “I’m not trying to be an artist, I’m just trying to not, not be me – I’m trying to protect that and just be a human being. I think that’s what people resonate with – the humanity in a work.”
Sam Kissajukian's artwork, photo by Catherine Busia
In striving for an honest humanity in his art, Kassajukian creates large, almost imposing works. “You can’t put your humanity in small wrist strokes but when you can do big sweeping strokes and you stand in front of the piece and you move, you’re not hunched over and worried about the details and I find that it is a stronger self expression for me, especially for someone who doesn’t have a background in art.”
For someone who has only recently picked up a paintbrush, Kissajukian has already won awards in Melbourne and Sydney for 300 Paintings, the precursor for the two events at Adelaide Fringe this season. This year’s Adelaide season we get to enjoy another layer to Kissajukian’s work – a 25x3m LED screen, curved around the artist as he performs his tie-in stand-up act. Images of the art are displayed as they are discussed, with a particular type of levity generally reserved for those artists with lived experiences of mental illness.
“I find [creating art] very amusing. I think of it like a lens, you take information in from the outside world through all your senses and it gets processed through your ego, your trauma and everything – the way way that you see the world and your psychology – your mind makes a plan and your physical body creates something that is a reflection of your interpretation of the world through your lens.
“For me, the subject is never the external world, that’s a placeholder. The subject is the misinterpretation of my view of the world. The flawed thinking – how funny is it that there’s someone who is trying to make something look and be something else.”
The original idea for the shows was conceptualised in the manic state, but went above and beyond the current work. Kissajukian pitched a business – a business which would show art, where art was purchased with art, which had its own currency made of art – and received funding during mania.
“Then I got diagnosed and I was so embarrassed and I had lost so much money. People that have mental illnesses have these experiences and they have a lot of shame about what they did.
“We know that a manic episode is bad and destructive financially and psychologically, physically and emotionally, and I was like ‘but we know that so lets make it fun’. There are lots of funny things that happen during those periods. When [this idea] was a business it was crazy, but when its art people are like ‘this is genius’. It’s very funny.”
Kissajukian doesn’t shy away from his bipolar diagnosis in his visual art or stand-up. He has come to recognise the impact it has on his understanding of self, and created ways to self-manage. “I get these waves and the problem with that is that when I’m in a manic mind, my personality shifts where I can think very quickly – I’m energetic, I’m fun, I’m buoyant, and I know the rules of that personality. When I’m depressed, I know the rules of that personality as well.”
Having distinct ‘personalities’ like this can make emotions and events difficult to process. Just as my manic state remains a blur in my non-manic mind, so too does Kissajukian interact with different memories and feelings as he flows between states of mind. “My memories get processed differently because there’s me in the middle, there’s me manic, and there’s me depressed. I have experienced long periods of my life in each of those states so now there’s a disharmony in my personality and I have memories that are associated with each state. When I’m manic I can remember things from other times I was manic so it’s really hard for me to process reality because I’m always transitioning between spaces.”
And transitioning between spaces is an important element to the show – bringing the verbal and visual together to create a space which communicates to a wider audience. “I think through verbal communication you can point to a truth and through visual communication you can point to a truth but it’s never the truth. I think through pairing the two together you can get more specifically at what that truth might be.”
As someone with anxiety, I understand how avoidance becomes a coping mechanism – ignoring to-do-lists, waving at deadlines as they pass by, or rationally understanding the importance of achieving a task, but being unable to achieve said task. Even avoiding feeling can be anxiety-induced behaviour. But for those who haven’t experienced mental illness, it may be hard to understand these paralysing and self-destructive feelings.
“I discuss in my stand-up and my art the very intangible state of bipolar and my emotive cycles. That’s how I choose the paintings and how I choose what I talk about. How do I pair them in a way that I can specifically talk about the relationship between anxiety and avoidance and how it leads to depressive states? How can I explain to people that don’t have mental illness what a bipolar manic episode feels like?”
As heavy as the content may be, Kissajukian isn’t out to scare his audiences. “The show is about breaking down bipolar but in a really fun way you could say it was horrible, you also did a lot of fun things.” In many ways, it’s celebrating and poking fun at what can be achieved in spite of a mental illness diagnosis. And rather than leaving audiences shell-shocked from the experience, Kissajukian aims to have his crowds leave empowered and understood.
“I’m an ambassador for SANE Australia which is incredible and I work very closely with them. I’m talking about very intense experiences of mental illness and I try to make it fun but you know people do reach out and share their story and I’m not a trained professional. I think people are more isolated than ever and there is a mental health epidemic. My show isn’t just talking about these things but talking about how to talk about them. Showing how it’s OK and it can be funny, even though it’s serious, but that we can discuss it and there are resources.”
Paintings of Modernia, The Light Room Studio at ILA, until 16 March
Museum of Modernia, The Light Room Studio at ILA, until 17 March