Contemporary Art, Health and Medicine

Imogen Wiltshire, History of Art and Film, University of Leicester,

Fiona Johnstone, Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University,

This panel explores the proliferation of artistic practices addressing medical and health-related subjects, both within and outside of traditional systems of art production and display. As well as the increasing prevalence of medical themes in the work of individual artists, contemporary art is now called on to interpret, communicate and produce health-related knowledge in academic research, medical museums and medical environments.

The intersections between contemporary art and medicine have received little critical attention (to date, most work on art and medicine has focused on the 19th and early 20th centuries). As Jordanova notes, ‘we lack a basic map’ of ‘the multiple relationships between medicine and the visual arts since the war’ (Ludmilla Jordanova, 2014. ‘Medicine and the Visual Arts’, in Medicine, Health and the Arts, edited by Victoria Bates, Alan Bleakley and Sam Goodman, 41–63. London and New York: Routledge). This panel explores these relationships from 1945 onwards, with the aim of furthering recent debates about the distinctive roles played by contemporary fine art practice and art-historical scholarship within the critical medical humanities.

Papers will analyse the mechanisms through which artists produce knowledge about medicine and health, and probe the assumptions about art that underpin its increasing use in academic projects on illness, and its presence in medical museum contexts. How is art discursively framed within these non-art institutions? What kind of work is art being called on to do here? What kind of subjectivities are produced through these practices and displays? Conversely, how are existing definitions of ‘medicine’ and ‘health’ being (re)defined by artists and art institutions? In particular, we hope to critically reframe the ‘therapeutic’ label and biographical readings that are often applied to artists working in these areas, and to explore the culturally situated methods that are deployed both by, and in relation to, such artists, in order to question epistemological frameworks and normative discourses.

Speakers & Abstracts

Nurturing Relationships across Art, Health and Medicine

Catherine Baker (Birmingham City University)

The report Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group in 2017 offered compelling evidence of the positive impact of the arts on health. Similar findings were provided by the World Health Organization’s evaluation in 2019. Yet arts practitioners remain primarily called upon to envisage the research findings of others, with artists mostly valued when operating within therapeutic or visualisation contexts.

The fields of arts and medicine have been slow to understand that material practices have agency as forms of knowledge production. While the therapeutic label remains somewhat slippery, there are signs that a more balanced and less hierarchal form of interdisciplinary collaboration can emerge where an understanding of the epistemological position of arts practice in health is valued. This paper considers that arts practice has itself contributed to a historic position whereby creative practice is considered primarily restorative. It further proposes that misunderstandings occur when art and medicine-based collaborative research is conceptualised as simply about illness or patient experience rather than recognised as something that is actively explored with patients.

Using examples from my own projects, this paper draws attention to the importance of relationships between artists, clinical scientists, academics, patients and public audiences. Nurturing relationships that act as decisive meeting-points is key to realising the full potential of collaborative research and the role of material practices across the arts, health and medicine.

Other People’s Practices: Who are the Other People?

Sheelagh Broderick (Independent Researcher, Arts Council of Ireland Arts & Health Documentation Bursary 2019)

Other People’s Practices is an artist’s residency and research project that supports professional artists to produce collaborative socially engaged projects in Ushers Island, a National Forensic Mental Health Service community centre for recovered and recovering service users of the Central Mental Hospital in Dublin, Ireland. A post-medium understanding of art practice allows us to foreground the question of what a particular art practice can do. Art’s function is to transform, even if only for a moment, our sense of ourselves and of our understanding of the world and how we can act in it. Art raises issues related to power and authority in institutions of health care and art simultaneously. In the case of the former, institutional knowledge is exercised in a hierarchy that misunderstands arts practices, often as therapy. In the latter case, although there have been major shifts in arts practice to extra gallery settings, the health-care setting is too often disregarded as a site for critical practice. These are the factors shaping the formulation of Other People’s Practices. In following the trajectories of the three residencies through their processes, intentions and outcomes, one can see mutuality in the shaping and reshaping of their respective institutions emerging. The specification of practices found in Other People’s Practices and the effects arising invite deeper sustained engagement of artistic practice to open up a critical attitude to institutions of all kinds.

Waiting Room: A case study on women healers and patients on the periphery of medicine

Waiting Room Project: Flóra Gadó, Eszter Lázár, Edina Nagy, Eszter Őze, Eötvös Loránd (University and Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary)

This paper addresses how contemporary art can reveal missing narratives in a medical museum space. The Waiting Room Project is a discursive artistic educational project on museum collections, with a particular focus on the presence of women (doctors, health visitors, healers, midwives) in the history of medicine. In this year-long project, we take the collection of the Semmelweis Medical History Museum, Budapest, Hungary opened in 1965 as a starting point for analysing the contradictory relationship between unofficial and institutional medicine, as well as the typically ‘female’ roles associated with medical practice, health politics, and reproductive rights and regulations. We invited artists to reflect on the Semmelweis Museum’s permanent exhibition with our themes in mind, using them as a basis for a broader reflection on the role of women in medicine. Among other things, the artists investigate phenomena that were previously considered deviant, such as female hirsutism or hysteria. They also deal with key, yet undervalued ‘female’ professions like that of the midwife or health visitor.

We argue that the invited artists not only enrich the narrative presented by the Semmelweis Museum’s collection and permanent exhibition but also bring forth new perspectives for a possible reinterpretation of medical history. We argue for the crucial importance of sharing the knowledge created with the tools of contemporary art, and initiating a discussion about biopolitics and social reproduction (which is not well represented in the state-sponsored art spaces of present-day Hungary).

We will examine how contemporary art is discursively framed within the non-art institution of the Semmelweis Medical History Museum, and will query how contemporary art interventions can change the narrative created by museum objects.

Gender Scars: Wounds, trauma and recovery through women artists in China and beyond

Rachel Marsden (University of the Arts London)

Linda Jean Pittwood (The University of Huddersfield)

Gender Scars navigates the intersection of race, gender identity and hereditary trauma by paying close attention to representations of skin, scars, wounds and mental health in the work of women artists from the Chinese diaspora.

The title Gender Scars deliberately nods to ‘Scar Art’, the name given to a movement of art in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (1970s–80s), visualising the trauma of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Originating from Li Xinhua’s short story Scar from 1978, Scar Art wasn’t so much scars being represented in paintings, sculptures and graphic novels as still-open wounds in the social body.

For this paper, Scar Art is reinterpreted as pain and ‘writings on the skin’ in a multitude of forms and media. Functioning as an action archive, Gender Scars focuses on what has been refracted through this earlier period of art into the 21st century through artists including Teresa Eng (UK), Chen Zhe (PRC), John Yuji (Taiwan/USA) and Ma Quisha (PRC), selected here from approximately 30 artists identified.

The vocabulary of trauma and skin, its interpretation and text, blurs within discussion of the artists’ works. Prioritising a sensitivity to the artists’ lived experience, it is grounded within scholarly discussions of wounds, pain and visibility, informed by voices including Sara Ahmed, Elaine Scarry, Angela Failler and Shuqin Cui, alongside ethics of emotionally demanding research.

This paper serves as an opportunity to bear witness to scars, healing and recovery, underpinning a wider collaborative research project by Marsden and Pittwood, Radical Care.

Queering Biotechnologies: Redefining gender representation through contemporary medical practices in 21st century moving-image art

Elisabetta Garletti (University of Cambridge)

Following the historical pathologisation of femininity and womanhood in psychoanalytic and socio-cultural discourses, this paper considers the contemporary re-appraisal of medical practices as emancipatory tools, focusing on the work of contemporary artists who portray medical procedures and new biotechnologies as ‘queering’ devices that enable a reconfiguration of gender in non-biological and non-binary terms. To support my argument, I will draw on the work of philosophers and theorists concerned with the biopolitics of gender in relation to contemporary biotechnologies, particularly Paul  B. Preciado’s ([2008] 2013) analysis of the transgender possibilities enabled by the contemporary ‘pharmacopornographic era’, as well as Helen Hester’s (2018) and Sophie Lewis’ (2019) respective examination of how assistive reproductive technologies and surrogacy facilitate a reconsideration of reproduction that transcends gender binarism.

These theories will be engaged as interpretative keys for the use of medical imagery in a selection of works by the moving-image artists Marianna Simnett and Lucy Beech. The work of these artists challenges the apparent ‘objectivity’ of medical discourse, revealing instead how medical practices have historically been involved in the reproduction and enforcement of ideals of body and gender normativity; they also explore the potential of contemporary biotechnologies to produce a new understanding of the body and identity beyond gender. The analysis will focus on how these artists challenge traditional, biological interpretations of femininity predicated on ideas of over-presence or excessive closeness to the body (Doane 1987), motherhood and reproduction, and pathology, dismantling them and revealing the body as a free-floating signifier.

Histories of Black Women and the Medical Archive: Performing trauma and healing in the era of Black Lives Matter

Evi Papadopoulou (University of Ioannina)

The history of medicine in the United States is a contradictory field of research. The role of black people as medical guinea pigs provoked different narratives concerning the ethics of physicians in the context of slavery. Medicine today grapples with the vestiges of racial bias. Black people, in particular women, complain having been denied appropriate care after their pain was dismissed by medical staff. The Black Lives Matter movement revealed the hidden histories of black subjectivities who remained until recently in the margins of official archives and still experience social and financial injustices. The aim of this paper is to examine the role of contemporary art in revealing histories from below as opposed to the medical archive and in tracing the pain and need of healing of women nowadays back to slavery and brutality. I will focus on the performances of Doreen Garner, Francheska Alcantara and the activist group Black Youth Project 100, which address the traumatic practices of James Marion Sims, the so-called father of modern gynaecology, and Simone Leigh’s installations and performances, which provide care and healing to women who do not have an easy access to the American health-care system. I will examine trauma and healing narratives in the Black Lives Matter era, discussing how the aforementioned artists revendicate visibility for black women in official and non-official institutional contexts, and how medical and health-related issues affect the representability of black women and their role as active social agents.

Bodies Speaking: Embodiment, illness and the poetic materiality of puppetry/object practice

Marina Tsaplina (Health Humanities Lab, Duke University)

The art of puppetry animation is an ancient pre-colonial art form that has existed in nearly every culture around the world. Puppet animation is an invocation of a world through the imagination, body, breath, memory and history of the animator, where worlds are able to be channelled through the body and imagination. I have developed an artistic pedagogy that brings this artistic knowledge practice into medical education with the aim of teaching clinicians about the foundations of embodiment, care and healing. This has inevitably raised profound philosophical questions about how nature and bodies are understood in Western science. Puppetry animation, as an embodied artistic practice, challenges some of biomedicine’s fundamental positions on the solidity of the boundaries of bodies. It opens decolonial epistemologies and indigenous healing traditions, including a difficult reckoning that I am in the midst of grappling with. The embedded culture of whiteness and the engrained lens of ‘the primitive’ in the Western art history and anthropology canon leaves me with great uncertainty about how to engage any research on puppetry, sacred object and healing traditions. My artistic practice has made me eager to understand non-biomedical healing traditions, and yet my commitment to decoloniality leaves me at a loss on what may be hidden in my own gaze when I look at a ceremonial object, mask or puppet. Bodies Speaking: Embodiment, Illness and the Poetic Materiality of Puppetry/Object Practice is the first full articulation of this artistic search that seeks to restore embodied healing in Western medicine through art without appropriation.

Curare: On taking care – medicine, history, botany and art in Uriel Orlow’s work
Vanessa Badagliacca (Institute of Art History (IHA), Universidade Nova de Lisboa) 

Replaced by:

The Artist is not a Megaphone for your Research Findings: Collaborative art practices in the medical humanities

Fiona Johnstone (Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University)

Drawing on research conducted in the summer of 2020 and published as a Working Knowledge Project Short “Collaborations between artists and academics” (January 2021), this paper considers a frequently opaque or invisible aspect of scholarly practice in the medical humanities, a field defined by its enthusiasm for collaboration, interdisciplinarity and dialogue. In this context, artists are often engaged as part of multi-disciplinary teams, or work with individual academics on specific projects. Collaborations between researchers and creative practitioners are generally perceived as highly desirable, with potential benefits for both sides: they are often recognised as a way for academics to bring their research to a wider public, and for artists to access expert knowledge that can be used as raw material for their own work. Creative collaborations can also be understood as an innovative method of alternative knowledge production, for example foregrounding collective, participatory or embodied forms of knowledge. However, presenting such collaborations in an exclusively positive light risks an overly idealistic vision of what it means practically to work together.

The first part of my paper will present the findings of the Project Short, which offers a toolkit for would-be collaborators, outlining how projects are initiated, the process that are involved, the outputs that might be expected, and how contracts, artists’ fees, copyright, and intellectual property rights can be negotiated.

The second part of my paper will extend my analysis beyond the purely practical aspects of artistic-academic collaboration, asking how such practices expand and challenge both established art-historical frameworks and existing accounts of art in healthcare. For example, whilst understood as part of the ‘social turn’ in art (Bishop, 2012), terms such as participatory art (Bishop, 2006; 2012), community art (Matarasso, 2019), or dialogic art (Kester, 2004) can only partially account for these practices; similarly, whilst there is a rich existent literature on the ‘therapeutic’ or ‘healing’ use of art within hospitals and other healthcare spaces (e.g. Hogan, 2001; Cork, 2011), much less has been written about the potential of art to critique and interrogate normative clinical practices and the assumptions that underpin them.




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