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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.
This is the latest one of my drawings in the Glasgow University Anatomy Museum. It is from a plaster cast William Hunter made of a dissection of a pregnant woman at around the sixth month of pregnancy. My aim was to get a more ‘lifelike’ feel about the drawing – to find the innocence and the warmth of the ‘real’ foetus under the painted plaster.
Its been a while since my last post and things have been quite frantic. Since returning from Tanzania I have been working on drawings for the Drawing Out Obstetric Fistula show at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London in May (more on that later) but now I am in Glasgow working in the Medical Humanities Research Centre, with many thanks to the Wellcome Trust who have funded this three month visit.
Through this post are some of the drawings I have been doing in the Glasgow University Anatomy Museum.
I am writing a paper in which I hope will put the Drawing Women’s Cancer project into historical and philosophical context. All of the work up to now on the project has been directly concerned with the here and now – with the experiences of women in the present, and this was the primary aim from the beginning . I feel however that to enhance the validity and indeed the credibility of the work, it is very necessary to ‘ground’ the project in relation to what has gone before. Here is a pertinent section of the proposal that WT approved:
The paper will look at how perceptions of the woman patient between the 18th century rise of obstetrics and the ‘man-midwife’ persona of William Hunter and his Scottish contemporaries, through the 19th century advancement of gynaecology to the present day treatment of gynaecological disease, have influenced present day attitudes – both medical and general – towards gynaecological illness and its overall impact on women’s lives, and moreover, how these attitudes were and can be affected by and through visual art. I will focus on a methodological and philosophical comparison of Hunter’s Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (drawings by Jan Van Rymsdyk) and the development of my own drawings for Drawing Women’s Cancer as a basis from which to explore how visual art as a form of expression and communication can, as a form of ‘metalanguage’, effectively serve to ‘speak the unspeakable’ in this area women’s health.
I have been here for two weeks now and it is the historical context that has been engaging my time and thoughts as I have discovered the University Anatomy Museum. The experience of drawing from the very same bodies that Rymsdyk drew from is a gift and in many ways very humbling. Further, Glasgow University Library holds the full set of Rymsdyk’s drawings for the Gravid Uterus in their Special Collections and I spent a whole afternoon studying them, trying to understand how he executed them – one artist to another – and I have to admit I had a few surprises after only ever seeing the reproductions. I discovered that he definitely does use graphite in the drawings, which are often considered to be just red chalk alone, and he also uses what looks like dilute ink in blue yellow and green. The drawings are less defined and precise in the flesh -and better for that!. In some there is definitely a ‘wetting’ if the chalk – and this is further evidenced by the buckling of the paper- but it is a technique he seems to use sparingly. Most of the tonal quality comes from exceptionally sensitive blending of the chalk and overall, to my mind, he does indeed have a very ‘painterly style.
In the drawings here I have used red chalk (or at least the modern equivalent) and graphite. I am not in any way trying to emulate Rymsdyk, I am simply trying to ‘get inside his head’ in search – through practice – of the subjective nuances of what he was doing. I am also – undeniably – enjoying myself enormously, and especially savouring the necessity to get back to a level of ‘discipline’ in the work!
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.
In my work on the various projects in medical settings the making of the art, for me, is a creative act that goes beyond documentation. It is an act of empathic witness and the art itself becomes both agent and advocate of patient autonomy through its unique capacity to engage the subjective sensibilities of the viewer. This goes far beyond Alan Radley’s concept of the asymmetric relation – it is a complete immersion of one subjectivity into the world of many others and the results that are derived from such a conflagration serve only to further blur the boundaries between objective rationalism and the passionate human need to co-exist and share experience.
So, for the last two weeks I have been immersed in the culture, and the sheer dynamism of the Oncology Department at Singleton Hospital in Swansea on the first stage of the Medicine Unmasked project. You can find out more about the project and follow its progress here: medicineunmasked.wordpress.com
I have been shadowing four students who are now two weeks into their five-week ‘oncology apprenticeship’ on the Graduate Entry Medical program at Swansea University College of Medicine. Through shadowing, observing, taking notes, engaging in and recording one-to-one conversations with students and medical professionals, and generally getting the feel, from my artist’s perspective, of the students own experiences in terms of learning and teaching of their placement on the department, I have amassed copious notes, sketches and ideas that will all be used as ‘data’ for when I return to the hospital for a further two weeks in January. During this second stage of the project I will work on a body of artwork, drawings inspired by the process as a whole, but until then, and in the meantime, I will offer a series of posts on this blog that relate to the project both directly, as the experiential nature of the project demands, and more theoretically, as the same experiential nature of the project has encouraged! Needless to say I would appreciate any comments/feedback for the posts on this site as all such content potentially impacts on the process of the research as a whole and is therefore very valuable.
“As an experienced doctor you may have seen twenty patients who, say, have had a heart attack. But this patient has only seen one. It’s their first experience so I think that’s what we have to bear in mind.” (2nd year Student)
I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation and gratitude to everybody I have been working with; the students themselves, the consultant oncologists that are working alongside, specialist nurses, all nurses on the wards, radiologists, staff in the hospital library, in the cafe, and indeed all hospital staff who I have met and who have been so wonderfully accommodating of someone who – let’s face it – must seem a slightly strange presence in the day-to-day dealings of the hospital as I sit quietly and watchfully with sketch-book or dictaphone in hand! I also owe huge thanks of course to the patients who have been so willing to let me be a witness, alongside the professionals and the medical students, to their experiences during consultation, examination and, in one case, of having a ‘shell’ made of his head in preparation for radiotherapy.
As a small group of two boys and two girls, three in their second year and one in her fourth and final year the students have enthusiastically welcomed me into their world as they tackle the demands both professional and personal of working in the department, and in the process my own learning curve has been close to vertical! As much as I have been learning about the student experience both in the specific terms of the apprenticeship model, and in the more general terms of the GEM course as a whole, I have also had the fantastic opportunity to engage with the theory, and most directly the practice of oncology in a way that has had a profound impact on my perception of myself and my practice as an artist working in medicine. It has confirmed, in a very visceral way, that this is the right place for me to be in terms of how I understand my art and what it can do.
Here is the link for a new project that I am beginning with a ‘pilot’ study research visit to Tanzania in December. http://drawingof.wordpress.com/
Entitled Drawing Out Obstetric Fistula: exploring the ramifications of maternal birth trauma through art, the project is intimately related to Drawing Women’s Cancer in terms of the methodology and the primary aims. I am very excited about developing this work and optimistic too about the potential for visual art to cross international, cultural and linguistic borders, especially given language itself is such an important factor in the philosophical framework of all my work that is rooted in the art-medicine relation. You can read more details about this new project by following the link and I hope you will follow the progress of the work on the associated artist’s blog page.