A friend sent me this image…it was a shock, almost, as the piece is long since destroyed as a result of weeks of storage in a damp container on a journey from Cyprus to the UK. Sadly the image cannot provide the impact of the original, which was some 3 metres long. ‘The Last Supper’ was a reaction to 9/11, painted in the comfort of a warm sunny studio in the Mediterranean only weeks after the event and born of so many feelings and emotions I was going through at the time. It feels strange to see it now – a huge piece in which I invested so much, but which was never shown, and never left the studio – I feel almost detached, as if it was another life. If I am really honest ….I think, I feel, that it was.
It’s been a while, but things have been moving fast for me in terms of work and research opportunities…almost a blur, as Drawing Women’s Cancer develops, amorphic beginnings of parallel international projects take more solid form, deadlines loom and the studio beckons. Life as a freelancer – an artist/researcher ‘visitor’ roaming the corridors and working with extraordinary people in and of various institutions is proving to be very accommodating. It nurtures my interdisciplinary being, and my independent soul, in a way that full time academia never did …but then, perhaps it was the particular academic positions that I held that were the problem, rather than the world itself.
Uppermost in my mind at the moment however is a major exhibition of my work that will be going up in November at The gate Arts centre in Cardiff. I am back in the studio where the smell of oil paint never fails to raise my spirits and inspire the academic in me to negotiate to more precarious, more recklessly intuitive route towards understanding. I will post more details later – maybe even gift the show a page of its own! – but for now here is a description of the show and a detail of one of the paintings.
Illness begins with ‘I’
To find oneself in Sontag’s Kingdom of the Sick is to experience the ‘abject’, the impossible object that remains still a part of the subject, and which Grosz tell us ‘signals the precarious grasp that the subject has over its identity and bodily boundaries’. To find oneself in the Kingdom of the Sick is to lose sight of oneself in the Kingdom of the Well, and to suffer in a world where the final abjection is to be found in Kristeva’s phenomenon of ‘death infecting life’. Medicine can define the abject. It can provide, sometimes, a passage back into the Kingdom of the Well. But as the person behind the diagnosis becomes a patient, individuality and the voice of suffering is often lost in the transformation.
This exhibition is about visualising the experience of illness through a creative act of witness. These are ‘portraits’ of the individual experience of levels of ‘dis-ease’ that can become so much a part of being itself that the discomfort is rarely contained within physical, mental or even spiritual boundaries. The experience can be chronic or acute, it can traverse a scale from devastation to mild irritation, but most importantly it is uniquely subjective, allied irrevocably to Self. This exhibition seeks to reinstate the voice of the individual caught between Kingdoms. Illness begins with ‘I’.
Here are some details of some of the drawings in the drawing Women’s Cancer Show. Full details and pictures of the show in situ are on the official site: drawingcancer.wordpresss.com
Putting the show up feels like a beginning rather than an end to the work….it is an extended dialogue that can only continue. The importance of the project is etched in the faces of those who stand before the work and begin their own dialogue with what they are seeing. It is a hard subject.
A short film I made for the Drawing Women’s Cancer project. (My first ever movie effort!)
This drawing is another from the Drawing Women’s Cancer project (drawingcancer.wordpress.com).
It derives from a transient moment. A connection between two human beings across a clinical boundary, that was as instant as it was fleeting. A look, a glance of understanding that although calm on the surface, contained within it all the suffering, the defiance, and the compassion that mere words could never engender.
She had no hair.
We never spoke, but her voice echoes softly, resolutely, in the drawing
In his famous conversations with Claire Parnett, Deleuze explains that in the early stages of his illness he experienced no pain, and it seemed hardly an illness at all. Later however, he describes his sense of how TB causes the body to dissipate, to become transparent, and he defines in graphic detail an embodied experience of a ‘body turning to phlegm and mucus and sputum and finally blood’. And of air, ‘the need for better air’. He was at pains to describe his view of illness in general as both an active and reactive force that is not ‘an enemy, not something that gives the feeling of death, but rather something that gives the feeling of life…illness sharpens a kind of vision of life’, and indeed I have come across a similar reaction – albeit rarely –in conversations with cancer patients. However, in the same conversations he also acknowledges that ‘considering my actual state, it is a little bit as if I were already gone, and this seems to reflect an ambivalence toward his chronic situation, as well as his concept of the body as a perpetually self-differing, self-creating assemblage of processes and experience, both affecting and being affected by other bodies and experiences it encounters.
I am working paintings and drawings for two solo exhibitions. Drawing Women’s Cancer (detailed in the previous post) and ‘Seen Voices’ at The Gate Gallery in Cardiff in November this year. The image here is a piece I will be showing.
The latter will represent a very personal side of my practice as a whole, and serve in part as a ‘visual overview’ of my increasingly profound involvement in the Medical Humanities as artist, writer and human being. I strive to explore the social, historical and cultural dimensions of illness, as well as maintain those philosophical parameters within which I can move freely and wherein the increasing urgency of the need for an alternative direction in the face of scientific objectivity is the fundamental driver for my practice.
I am in more than my usual state of flux, with various projects taking amorphous shape around me. I am feeling split, torn, rendered asunder - yet it is a joyful disintegration of surety that leads to the heady delights of possibility and potentiality! I am returning to Galveston for May. I will have there the time and space to open my lungs to the sea air and let my thoughts breathe.
The second Drawing Women’s Cancer exhibition will run April 1st – 30th at Cardiff Central Library. It is a project close to my heart and one that I have been working on since 2012. We had a successful exhibition entitled Speaking the Unspeakable at the Senedd Welsh Assembly building in November 2012, and since then we have been sorting out all the paperwork and acquiring the permissions necessary from Cardiff and Vale University Health Board to take the project further. In the meantime I have been quietly working on a monograph for Speaking the Unspeakable – and indeed I have been invited back by the good people at Texas University Institute for Medical Humanities to continue this work in May. You can find out more about the Drawing Women’s Cancer project as a whole here: drawingcancer.wordpress.com
I hope that some of you from the area might be able to visit the show.
As part of the Scottish Health Humanities Seminar and Masterclass Series, Dr Jac Saorsa, independent visual artist and writer, will lead a masterclass followed by a seminar on 26th February 2014.
I. Masterclass: Drawing on Subjectivity
Wednesday 26 February 2014. 3.00-4.30pm
The Creative Space, First Floor, G Block (Western Infirmary, Dumbarton Road, Glasgow, G11 6NT – see map)
Based on ‘Deep Drawing’, an extended drawing exercise that Jac Saorsa has developed over the years, this practical ‘workshop’ involves using charcoal to make marks that define your individual response to your subjective emotions and feelings. Using the charcoal in this way requires no previous experience or skill and it is possible – within a
continual ‘rubbing down’ process – to build up a multi-layered drawing, invariably beautiful in its own right, that becomes a unique visual testimony of your individual subjectivity. As a basis for the exercise we will use quotes from literature. Since my current research and creative practice is immersed in the visualisation of the experience of cancer and its treatment, specific texts will refer to the experience of illness and will include:
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Cancer Ward
Marilyn French, A Season in Hell
Richard Selzer, Letters to a Young Doctor
Arthur Kleinman, The Illness Narratives
You will be encouraged to make physical marks with the charcoal according to your subjective response to what you hear, thereby building up a ‘deep drawing’ of your own.
Students and early career researchers welcome. Registration is required; please contact Luca Guariento: firstname.lastname@example.org.
II. Public Seminar: ‘Seen Voices: a Reciprocal Relation Between Visual Art Practice and the Experience of Illness’
5.45-6.45pm, The Creative Space (see above)
Jac Saorsa’s abstract is as follows: As a visual artist with a background in philosophy and a passion for exploring the complexities of existential subjectivity, I offer a challenge to Langer’s view that ‘art is the objectification of feeling’. Based on my understanding of an inescapable conflict between robustness and frailty in terms of our physical and emotional engagement with the perceived reality of our world, my practice focuses on an exploration, through drawing and painting, of the impact of illness and bio-medical intervention. I aim to demonstrate how visual art practice, as an act of bearing witness to the suffering of others, can articulate and address the complexities of illness in ways that traverse disciplinary and even political boundaries, and can therefore open up a discursive space within our understanding of the experience of illness wherein the disjuncture between objectivity and subjectivity is blurred and uncertain. In this space practice itself becomes the ‘voice’ of suffering, and further, it is precisely within a productive uncertainty that the ongoing development of the role of art in the field of Medical Humanities is manifest.
This seminar is open to everyone, no registration required.