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It has been a difficult few months. Illness and surgery have taken their toll and colours have darkened around me. Things are moving on however both in health and in practice and portraiture has been a significant part of the latter recently (see previous post). This self portrait has been through many incarnations over the months, dependent on – and at the same time being precipitative of – my state of mind. This latest version suffers in itself for the constant reworking and hides much beneath the thickness on the paint… pentimento – ghosts of myself lie uneasy underneath what I think is a finished state but, reflecting life – and death, I may yet rework the painting until it is finished only through its destruction.

 

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.

DermaRicoeur 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.

Its going to be a fast moving few weeks I think, now the Illness begins with I exhibition is over. It turned out to be a successful show, especially in terms of the generous and sometimes humbling feedback I received. Most importantly for me it validated once again that what I am doing is worthwhile.

Now I am off to Glasgow to meet with my colleague at the University there to discuss my visit next year, and then I am very pleased to be going to Birkbeck College in London where I have been invited to present my work at the Visualising Illness workshop this weekend. http://www.bbk.ac.uk/art-history/research/visualising-illness I will be writing a review of the event on the  blogsite for Durham University Centre for Medical Humanities. This by the way is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the Medical Humanities and well worth a visit.

On Monday I will be beginning the Medicine Unmasked project as artist in residency at Swansea University and next weekend I fly to Tanzania to begin the Drawing Out Obstetric Fistula project

Finally – at least for now! – In the new year  I am delighted to have been invited to give a talk about my work and a masterclass in drawing with cadaveric material with students on the Medical and Forensic Art PG courses at Dundee University http://www.dundee.ac.uk/study/pg/medicalart/

I will be posting on the relevant websites as well as here as these projects develop…I hope you will follow to see how art and medical science continue to interrelate and it perhaps goes without saying that all comments and feedback on the work is greatly appreciated.

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The final preparations are being made and I want pass on here my warmest appreciation for all the support and help I have received from many, many people throughout the preparation for this exhibition. The official opening is on Friday 24th October but over on the Illness begins with ‘I’ page on this site you get a sneak preview of the works and texts that make up the show.

Page1Here is the poster for a new exhibition of work entitled Illness begins with “I”.

So, if you are in the area on October 24th you are more than welcome to come along  to have a glass of wine and view the paintings, drawings and sculptures which I hope will give some  further insight into how I am using art as a way to promote and extend understanding of the profound existential impact of illness. And if you can’t come in person please watch this space as very soon I will be putting up an image gallery of the whole show.

On my other research site – Drawing Women’s Cancer: drawingcancer.wordpress.com – I have posted a series of recent drawings I made in the operating theatre while attending a gynaecological operation. I have put a couple up here too in the hope you will be interested to see more. The project is growing in terms of its impact and resonance since its inception in 2012 and it is my constant aim to ensure that this continues.

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I have attended various operations during the course of the project and all of the women who have allowed me to witness this part of their experience do so with the conviction that it will help me understand more profoundly what they are going through. Having, to borrow a term from legal channels, an ‘appropriate adult’ seems also to help sometimes as they try to deal with the natural anxieties that such an experience brings on.

In the true spirit of interdisciplinary practice in the Medical Humanities, the Drawing Women’s Cancer project offers a direct challenge to the rationale of an uncompromising ‘art-science’ dichotomy by demonstrating that, in practice, neither can be disassociated from our understanding of humanity and the manner in which we engage or disengage with the society in which we are a ‘person’. Art, medical science and philosophy, at least for me, seem inescapably entangled in a web of our own being and are constituent parts of the same overall human project, but visual art perhaps has the more obvious capacity to ‘bear witness’ to the trials that are often borne in the pursuance of being…in our physical enactment and psychological representation of life. Drawing Women’s Cancer is not only about disease, or medical intervention, or suffering, or the impact of illness; it is about all of these things. It is about, as Radley notes, what it feels like when ‘all sense of normality, and all the expectations of a future that accompany good health, suddenly become less real’. It is about the experience of illness, where that experience overrides all others. It is about creating a language that has the power to speak, not necessarily for the women whose personal stories are taken as the point of departure, but rather because of them, so that they may return.

 

In a week I will be returning to the warmth and the hospitality of Galveston, Texas, once again the guest of the University of Texas Medical Branch Institute of Medical Humanities. I have bought new sandals.

This time, two motivations. I will continue to write on Drawing Women’s Cancer, and I will take up again the kind offer from the Director of Anatomy to observe and draw in the human dissection classes. I mean to work on some drypoint plates – the cadavers lend themselves to inscription through the diamond  which I hope will cut into the plate with a delicacy and a ‘tenderness’ that will do justice to the life that once was and the body that is. Spidery tendons and multiple layers of flesh and fat over bone. It is the subjectivity of experience that will occupy my mind and hand this time.

I am also pledged to teach on a Medical Humanities workshop to incoming medical students. I will adapt perhaps the workshop I gave in Glasgow. Here is a quote that I used then from a book that I found in the wonderful second hand bookstore in Glaveston on my last visit; a book that had a powerful impact on me. I used it that day in the city that claims a large part of my life and the lives of my children – who have grown strong and healthy. The quote  is about a child who did not, and the suffering she left behind.

‘Senora’, he began, ‘I am sorry’.  All at once he seemed to me shorter than he was, scarcely taller than she. There was a place at the crown of his head where the hair had grown thin. His lips were stones. He could hardly move them. The voice was dry, dusty. ‘No-one could have known. Some bad reaction to the medicine for sleeping. It poisoned her. High fever. She did not wake up.’ The last, a whisper.

The woman studied his lips as though she were deaf. He tried, but could not control a twitching at the corner of his mouth. He raised a thumb and forefinger to press something back into his eyes.

‘Muerte,’ the woman announced to herself. Her eyes were human, deadly.

‘Si, muerte’. At that moment he was like someone cast, still alive, as an effigy for his own tomb. He closed his eyes. Nor did he open them until he felt the touch of the woman’s hand on his arm, a touch from which he did not withdraw.

(Selzer, Richard, 1996 (1982), Letters to a Young Doctor, New York:Harvest Brace)

Suffering comes in many forms including the anguish that pervades so many aspects in between  life and death. The image here is one I came across again recently. I made it for  “sometimes I bleed…” an article I wrote some time  ago for the Journal for War and Culture Studies (Volume 4 Issue 1 (01 June 2011), pp. 127-139. It was a piece of ‘academic’ writing that nevertheless interrelated word image and subjectivity in a way that I still aspire towards.

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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

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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.

 

Derma

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