Another New Year.!..I wish all who read my work a very happy and healthy 2015.
Below is a talk I gave at the Visualising Illness Workshop held at Birkbeck College London last November. It is fundamentally a reflection on the concept behind the Illness begins with “I” exhibition. I hope some of you might enjoy it and, as always , your comments are much appreciated.
I would like to focus in this brief talk on a painting from my recent exhibition entitled Illness begins with I. The painting is called Derma and is a visualisation of the experience of psoriasis, as suffered by someone who is a friend of mine. Bearing in mind Deleuze’s distinction between concepts of philosophy, and affects of art, we can take here both a philosophical, and emotional perspective on the relation between objectivity and subjectivity, and the relation between the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other’, in terms of the image and how it may be interpreted. I believe that any image, whether it be a ‘difficult’ image or not calls the viewer, touches lightly with a soft but insistent evocation of meaning that transcends mere representation. This call can be answered in emotional engagement as the viewer enters a dynamic dialogue with the work, a dialogue that characterises the act and process of interpretation.
Ricoeur approaches an analysis of interpretation through his conception of the hermeneutic arc as a development of the original hermeneutic circle. The arc provides a bridge between the image to be interpreted, and lived experience, where experience is defined in the immediacy of life. This naturally implicates what we understand as the ‘Self’ in the interpretive process, and by consequence, it implicates the process itself as constituting a profound and meaningful interrelation between the Self, the interpreter, and the ‘Other’, the ‘interpreted’, wherein the image, as an autonomous entity, is permitted to ‘speak’ on its own terms.
In this dialogue, the image proposes alternative ways of meaningful understanding from within its own ‘projected world’. This is the world into which the interpreter must step, just as Alice stepped through the Looking Glass, even though some images, especially those of suffering and pain, are difficult to approach. Whilst ever we hesitate to take the step towards true empathy, whilst ever we remain on safe, solid and familiar ground that is sustained by mere, even if well-intentioned sympathy, we only continue to objectify the world of the other and thus avoid the deeply meaningful understanding that is derived from subjective interrelation. Sympathy turns on the gaze, the instant recognition of the image that connects us to the superficial while maintaining our separateness from the fundamental. Empathy however reflects Arendt’s notion of compassion, which defines an immediate sense of another’s suffering that leads to a practical response. As Alan Radley notes in his book, Works of Illness, ‘We do not turn from the depiction as such but from a depiction that exemplifies unbearable suffering’, and thus it is not the image itself that repels us, but rather the deeper understanding of existential suffering that empathic engagement with the image provokes. The risk we take at this level of engagement, by fully entering the world of an image of suffering, is of losing ourselves in a strange and unrecognisable experience of illness and experiencing, in turn, the Other’s sense of horror that accompanies that of abjection.
Radley goes on to note that ill people are indeed part of the Kingdom of the Well, and as Sontag herself acknowledges, they hold dual citizenship, but the sick remain separate in terms of general experience and therefore, according to Ricoeur, the viewer who does step into their world, the world of the Other, must suffer in her own turn the vertiginous disorientating clarity that leads to understanding. Only in this way can a viewer appreciate, or ‘appropriate’, the true meaning of the image, so that it becomes real enough to ‘own’. On encountering the mirror Alice has to move forward and through it in order to get past seeing only the reflection of both herself and her safe and secure surroundings. She can easily describe and explain her own world, the familiar room, the recognisable things that seem to make life meaningful, but beyond the reflection she enters another world wherein the decision to believe or not to believe must be made with ambivalence, and once there, she is no longer, or ever the same.
Meaning then is interpreted by and through the individual, and involves a response not so much to what the image says, but rather to what it says something about, and so, just as my painting is derived from an artistic appropriation that involves my witnessing my friends suffering and ‘owning’ it in the midst of creative process, a viewers interpretation is a further appropriation of the multiplicity of meanings that the image itself embodies, outwith authorial intention. Moreover, and in part through the emotional involvement that it depends upon, such appropriation must eventually give rise to the Deleuzean Figure beyond figuration, the ‘virtual’ figure, the ‘Other’ in relation to which (or who) we all come to realise the meaning – or perhaps yet the meaninglessness – of our own existence. Deleuze and Ricoeur come together, in concept, if not in terminology or even emphasis, at this point where appropriation necessarily precipitates a profound understanding of Self in relation to the Other. For the latter it is the enactment of the concept of ‘re-figuration’, a process of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of appropriated meaning in the world of the image, that determines the way in which the interpreter comes to understand his or her own being-in-the-world. From a Deleuzean perspective however, it is in a deeper place, in the darkened corners of the your own experience of the image of suffering, and far beyond your individual ego, that you will yourself encounter the ‘Body Without Organs’ or your ‘alter-ego’. The Body without Organs is here the innate and endemic ‘dis-ease’ that we all experience when confronted with suffering, and which is characterised by Ricoeur as the ‘Otherness’ at the very heart of Selfhood. This is the true significance of Illness begins with I
In conclusion, and from my position as an artist, I would like to take respectful issue here with a point made by Radley as he notes, ‘In artistic renderings made by a third party the spectator might be said to sympathise with the painter who has established an asymmetrical relationship with the afflicted person. One outcome of this asymmetry is that the afflicted person is identified with his or her suffering but is not seen to rise above it.’
I am happy to agree with the concept of an asymmetrical relationship that exists between artist and subject, however, I hesitate to follow through with the idea that the outcome of such asymmetry – even from a viewer’s perspective – ever fully denies the identification of the ‘person behind the diagnosis’, and thus the subjects individual capacity to demonstrate resilience and strength of will. The pose for this image was developed from as a composite of several preparatory sketches and photographs. It is intended to evoke a sense of ambivalence such that the sufferer can – and indeed sometimes does – allow himself to be overwhelmed by the condition and let it push him down, or he can – and indeed sometimes does – rise above it and stand up.