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The Empathy Museum review at Now Gallery, London – ‘ a tiny, human gesture’

The Empathy Museum, London. Photo: Now Gallery/Nina Manandhar
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One of the gentler corners of this year’s LIFT Festival is Clare Patey’s Empathy Museum, two installations next to NOW Gallery in Greenwich which encourage us to feel what someone else is feeling.

A Mile In My Shoes takes a Native American saying as a starting point: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” It’s art that takes adage at face value and searches for the truth in a turn of phrase. In a shed-sized shoe box on a huge plaza by the O2 Arena we are asked to literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes while the story of the shoes’ owner plays through headphones.

I hear ex-con turned artist Gary describe his spell in prison for dealing heroin. His fawn suede slip ons rub uncomfortably. The journey heads towards the river, through this unnatural, corporatised space sculpted into a kind of false beauty.

It’s a strange multi-sensory experience, and a fascinating story, even if feeling what Gary feels physically is not the same as feeling what he feels emotionally – which, perhaps, is a necessary element of empathy.

The other element of the museum is a library of books. Each is donated by a member of the public with an inscription describing what it means to the donor. As each is borrowed, the Museum follows the book’s journey to see how far it travels. There’s something intensely personal about a favourite book – and sharing it with a stranger is a rather beautiful act of connection.

Right next to the towering Millennium Dome – a place that thrives on celebrity and enormity – this is a tiny, human gesture that finds real depth in simplicity.

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A series of gentle enticements to empathise from artist Clare Patey