We knew London was a wise way to kick off our project visits; such a wealth of historical resources to study anatomy and medicine, and rich contemporary culture of art and literature. We both anticipated it was to be an intense three days, filled with observations and conversations. We were certainly not wrong!
My journey down to London a day prior to meeting Eleanor provided quality preparation and ‘digesting’ time to prepare for what was to follow. I took the time to reflect on how I processed ideas through visual means, and ultimately why. Why do I choose visual art and Eleanor reaches for creative writing and poetry? I hoped the answers to these fundamental questions would unfold over our time together.
I also listened to a podcast of a conversation with Dr Sondra Barrett – author of ‘Secrets of your Cells’ and self-confessed biochemist and ”cellular shaman” – who believes we must unlock the secrets of our cells: “to know them as the perfect containers for the divine spark of life. Cells are more than nucleus and membrane; receptors and genetic codes; fluid, moist, flexing stringy fabric and tubes.” What I learned during the three hour train journey had a profound shifting effect on my preoccupations with the material body; a movement from the flesh to the cellular. It was a concept to remain at the forefront of my observations for the next few days, drawing my attention to the macro and micro terrains of the corporeal body. Here are just some of the snippets from our three day trip to the big smog.
Friday 27th: Day 1
On meeting Eleanor from Kings Cross station, we opted for a warm up coffee and conversation before venturing to the Royal College of Physicians. We caught up on news of the weeks past and she shared her latest poem with me (to be posted soon!) In that instance, I became aware of my reactive imagination, painting pictures in my mind to occupancy her words. Departing the busy café on Great Portland street, we felt drawn to continue conversations in Regents Park where the natural backdrop and open space gave our senses a breather. We shared thoughts and beliefs about Western medicine and its conventional approach to treating the body as ‘parts’ as opposed to the ‘whole’. Eleanor experiences this first hand as a practicing GP, and I too observe such teaching in medical education. Inherently problematic, this view of the human body reduces its mental and physiological components to mere parts of a system, where intellect and consciousness is observed and treated in isolation to the vital systems and functions. Much of my drawing from time spent in the anatomy lab plays around with these ideas by framing disparate limbs, organs and internal anatomy; floating on the page, unanchored by another.
We head straight for the Symons collection in the RCP, a darkly lit room with glass cabinets stacked five shelves high with medical objects dating from the Georgian period (1714-1837). We both read the collection information, simultaneously pointing out sentences that read with an amusing tone “the display starts with items from the largest group in the collection, ‘invalid aids’.” We both scribble them down, moving onto the objects, scanning left and right, then back again. We point out the instruments that interest us the most and vocalise our response. It’s the surgical instruments that captivate me most. Tools designed to puncture, cut, slice, rip, tug at the flesh; they resemble the digits of a human hand, the surgeons hand, the sculptors hand. I meditate over the images that surface – a performing surgeon with hands similar to Edward scissor hands but with surgical tools, power in his stance, instruments to orchestrate procedures. Eleanor and I drop tools and swap. She sketches the objects as they hang tool down, and I use words. The patient’s body reclining, submissive, waiting for the first incision. I reflect on the likely sensory experience of surgery; the severe sights, the metallic scents and tastes, the touch of malleable, plump flesh and the sounds of body manipulation (tearing, ripping, squelching) and surgeons’ speak.
Standing before the large Leech jar, Eleanor tells a story about a female patient she once treated for chronic diabetes; the effects of which resulted in acute infections that called for the treatment of medical maggots. The descriptions she offered were viscerally and emotionally moving; from her tale of the sanitised creatures consuming the patient’s rotting flesh, to her accounts of how the woman plummeted into a deep depression caused by the arduous treatment and decline in her condition; exacerbated by what appeared to look like self-neglect and ill management of diabetes. This story recounted by Eleanor, among many others that were to follow, point towards the real value of this type of collaboration, where experiences are shared to sow seeds of inspiration. Whats more, it is the medical objects that stimulated the recollections in the first instance, and without this opportunity to share mutual observation, these stories wouldn’t emerge. Feeling full of beans from the RCP, we stop for lunch in Regents Park café, where over coffee and soup, we share more stories from the clinic as both a patient and a doctor.
Next on the agenda was The Gordon Museum of Pathology that I felt would be a profound experience for Eleanor as a new visitor. I have spent countless hours in the museum, exploring the incredible collection of specimens, wax models and paintings through the eye of my pencil. On this occasion, I relied less on the drawing process and more on lengthy observations leading to descriptive writing. The urge to draw returned often and I did produce a few small detailed sketches, but I tried to remain faithful to the unfamiliar territory of writing. Eleanor on the other hand, was riding the waves of prose inspiration and had written a poem about the museum within the first 40 minutes of us arriving!
Speaking with William Edwards, the curator of the museum, I was to witness to the reality of embodying both doctor and writer personas for Eleanor. Enquiring about the factual information referring to the specimens – chronologically bound in black folders infront of the jars – she expressed her interest in the “stories”, which was swiftly corrected by Bill as “accounts”. At once, I am perplexed at this correction until Eleanor exclaims with assurance “thats the writer in me!” It’s not uncommon for her to switch between her doctor and writer hats, as it is for me to change between my visual artist and participatory artist attire. Stories, tales, narratives are the stuff subjective imagination, which fall short in the face of medicine’s objective measures and observations. I ponder over the significance of the written word here, and wonder if visual (re)presentations would receive the same response. Compare a photograph of a particular specimen (pre-death and donation) to a medical illustration or painting. Which is to be trusted more? Undoubtedly, the photograph reads most true, but what the illustration does is encapsulate an ‘other’ space seen through the eyes of the artist. And like Eleanor’s poem, we are invited into the museum through the senses of the writer, broadening our imaginations and calling upon our repositories of imagery and sensory experiences.
We were lucky enough to be visiting the museum on the evening an event was hosted by the Imperial War Museum for their ongoing project ‘Putting Art on the Map’ (http://www.historypin.com/project/41-putting-art-o…). We joined an invited audience of surgeons, medical professionals and war historians to engage with medical paintings from their World War 1 collection, to offer medical insight and historical knowledge on the happenings and procedures present in the painterly scenes. This was a rare opportunity for Eleanor and I to engage with the meeting of medical and artistic minds to investigate the likely ‘truth’ behind WW1 paintings. On the one hand, the very nature of this event helped justify the purpose of our visit, and our project as a whole, in evidencing the requisite for collaborative thinking between the arts and medicine. On the other hand, the concept of ‘truth’ remained prominent and was to be a reoccurring discussion point over the following days.
Saturday 27th January: Day 2
Our day began with a trip to the Hunterian Museum, housed in the Royal College of Surgeons. For the first hour, we went our separate ways, with Eleanor favouring time with the The Evelyn tables (anatomical preperations on wooden boards that are thought to be the oldest anatomical preperations in Europe, 1600) (see post #8 for Eliot North’s ‘The Evelyn Table’ poem) . I decided to spend the time browsing the morbid anatomy collection of human and animal specimens, displaying common and curious conditions. Again, I entrusted the process of drawing to explore the content of the jars, focussing more of the looking and recording as opposed to the resulting image. I used the time to experiment with methods, such as blind contour, short durations and extreme close ups, to keep the process fluid and variable. At times, drawing paved the way to observe the aesthetics of the specimen and reflect on its material qualities. Other times, I wandered into a narrative terrain, thinking about the likely history of the human or animal that once was ‘whole’ and alive, the stories they have to tell. And at others, I would ponder over the ethics of preparing, displaying and viewing human remains, voyeuristic in my tendencies to move closer and closer, stare harder and harder. All this accessed through drawing.
Wondering what process Eleanor was immersed in, once again we dropped tools and as a result, I wrote a poem about “A portion of a foot with a piece of skin reflected to show the depression in the underlying tissue caused by a corn.”
Heel toe heel toe
Without the heel
Floating in solitude
Hanging by hair thin thread
Walking made impossible
A perfect square cut
A historical build-up of relentless, callous flesh
Leaving its impression
Making every step sore
In need of the procedure
Reclining, foot up
Ready for the cut
Momentary relief from the pressure
Then the blade
Slice, slice, sliced
I happily acknowledge my attempt is from the position of an amateur writer, but there was something quite important about trying to express my feelings toward and observations of this specimen through another means than visual; it brought me closer to the tools Eleanor was using to connect with the remains.
Over lunch, we made real progress on conceiving ideas about the relationship between visual and literary methods when engaging with museum specimens. I asked Eleanor the process she experiences, consciously and subconsciously, when recording her observations through writing, which she answered with great eloquence “I try to access the emotional truth.” This emotional truth being of the observer and observed, the subject and object, and the distillation of emotions as an aftermath of a situation, happening, experience. What is the emotional truths resting latent in these human remains, at once strangers and related ‘beings’? And what of this word ‘remains’; the material of death, what’s been left behind? We contemplate these notions of ‘truth’ and ‘remains’ and wonder if these are what unite our practices as visual artist and writer with interests in human health and experience. Hearing Eleanor talk of this emotional truth made me reflect on how I do exactly the same when drawing specimens, and when I produce artwork by large. I want to communicate the essence of the subject, render the emotional core of the ‘object’, whether that be human, animal or universal, to offer points of departure for us to explore our own emotional reaction (or truth) in response. And it is this interface that is in play when both Eleanor and I were engaging with the specimens; we were drawing and writing to access our emotional and intellectual responses to their corporeal fabric and narrative histories in order to move closer toward their emotional truths.
After these revelations, we headed off to the Wellcome Collection to see their current exhibition ‘Foreign Bodies’, showcasing the work of six artist residencies in different medical research centres worldwide. This was a great opportunity for Eleanor to engage with contemporary visual art, and I was interested to see how she responded to the exhibition through writing. I felt the work was really quite strong, aesthetically and conceptually, with Katie Paterson’s Fossil Necklace receiving my favourite vote. It’s not unsurprising that I’d be drawn to the necklace comprising of 170 rounded beads (each 8 mm in diameter) carved from fossils; the juxtaposition of micro and macro terrains through material and concept is enough to reduce me to a pure state of awe! Eleanor and I would go on to discuss this piece later over (another!) refreshment break, and we agreed on its ability to capture the essence of this thing we call the ‘tree of life’, connecting human, animal and mineral, fossils and DNA, through a history of billions of years. For me, this piece had a satisfying wholeness, a richness of process from knowledge to product. Eleanor however, preferred the digital work of Vietnamese artist Lêna Bùi that responded to the complex nature of human–animal contact through an intimate short film that posed more questions than answers. It was the open ended narrative that Eleanor related more to here, and she was honest about her reluctance to engage with most visual artwork that offered more answers than questions. This was an interesting observation shared, and we drew relationships between our preferences for artwork and own methods of enquiry, and agreed that by swapping tools we were challenging our habits and beliefs toward engaging with visual artwork.
Sunday 28th January: Day 3
By Sunday, we were suitable exhausted, both physically and mentally (and emotionally!) Given this, we decided to shorten our visit to the British Library to digest just enough before the point of collapse! We explored The Sir John Ritblat Gallery which hosts a permanent display of “over 200 beautiful and fascinating items: sacred texts from many faiths, maps and views, early printing, literary, historical, scientific and musical works from over the centuries and around the world.” Eleanor had visited this collection many times, but for me it was my first encounter of so many literary treasures. I was most taken by the curation of the gallery, where the lighting and temperature was kept low for the purpose of preservation. The environment felt strangely similar to that of the Hunterian, and other medical museums hosting human remains. With that thought in mind, my imagination began to wander and the literary objects – laid open for viewing – started to resemble human specimens. The remains of imagined stories and factual accounts of people who are again, at once strangers and relations, read like the preserved sutures and embalmed vessels of those housed in medical museums. “You can read the body like a book”: “You can read the book like a body.” We are both drawn back to this concept of ‘emotional truth’ and our interpretations of these literary and illuminated texts in relation to that of dead remains. What differentiates a preserved atrophied kidney of a young male in a jar, to a page of Jane Austen’s third volume of her notebook? Both capture a sense of death, preservation, narrative, history and a truth; accessible only through a surface of glass. A human library: A library of humans.
Having reached the end of our time in London, Eleanor and I sat directly outside the gallery, looking into the dimly lit cave of books and bodies, reflecting on our convergence of visual and textual (and human) ideas, knowledge and experiences, and dream
ing of a space in which they could unravel one another’s fabric and histories, through curiosity and play. For now, it is this ever unfolding collaboration that will move us closer to this place; developing our tools to allow us to touch these emotional truths that inhabit all living things.
Next stop, Ediburgh on 21st March!
Let it continue.