Opening Friday 17th November at 6pm, then daily until January 28th
(Some public holidays excluded)
The Patient: The Medical Subject in Contemporary Art
Ingrid Bachmann; Guy Ben-Ary with Nathan Thompson, Andrew Fitch, Douglas Bakkum, Stuart Hodgetts, Mike Edel; John A Douglas; Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose; Brenton Heath-Kerr; Carol Jerrems; Eugenie Lee; David McDiarmid; ORLAN; Helen Pynor; Jo Spence; Tim Wainwright & John Wynne
The word patient has a dual meaning. It describes a state of being – of bearing a situation quietly, without complaint. It also describes a person in a hospital or clinical context, who is ill and undergoing diagnosis or treatment. The word originates from the Latin, patiens, which means “suffering, enduring”.¹ And for the medical patient, it is a common enough experience to wait, with pain.
This exhibition, The Patient, addresses the embodied experience of the artist as medical patient, and the medical patient as living subject in contemporary art. It explores the ways in which artists engage with powerful human experiences in the fields of health, biological science and medicine, contributing to discourse on the representation of illness, disease, care, individual agency and what it is to be human. From over two decades of artistic enquiry through “Bio Art” ² convergences of the humanities and sciences, artists now have extraordinary access to the spaces of biological science and medicine – from laboratories, surgeries, therapeutic and community contexts, to specialist museums. Their access is not restricted to spaces, but includes relationships with scientific and medical professionals and their fields of research and knowledge.
There are four new works in The Patient. Helen Pynor’s The end is a distant memory considers the state between living and dying and the scientific, medical and digestive consumption of other animals. Video and performance artist John A Douglas exhibits a trilogy of works traversing his lived experience as a renal patient. This includes the premiere of a new work as a transplant recipient called Circles of Fire (variations). Installation artist and painter Eugenie Lee has created a participatory, virtual reality installation called Seeing is Believing that enables visitors to comprehend the experience of chronic pain.
Looking to the future of patienthood and the potential of the human body, Guy Ben-Ary and his collaborators Nathan Thompson, Andrew Fitch, Darren Moore, Douglas Bakkum, Stuart Hodgetts and Mike Edel have created an autonomous, cybernetic synthesiser controlled by a living neural cluster made from Ben-Ary’s own stem-cells in cellF.
For The Patient, I have researched a wide range of contemporary art to engage with the various lineages and progenitors of biomedical art: the feminist artists that challenged the social obligation to hide the diseased or surgical body from public view; the HIV and AIDS activist artists whose works brought home to mainstream Australia the power and subversive potential of art in addressing discrimination, visibility and the social impacts of the epidemic; socially engaged photographers who addressed directly and defiantly the loss of agency that patients experience within the hospital system; and body-based performance and conceptual artists and their collaborators whose use of their own bodies as object, subject and art material brought the medical body viscerally into the space of the gallery.³
ORLAN has given access to both her early and recent video works for this project including performative surgeries and animations of augmented bodies. The exhibition also includes recent artworks made by artists John Wynne & Tim Wainwright, and Ingrid Bachmann, who have worked through different processes in close consultation with transplant patient communities and hospitals. As this is an exhibition engaging with the experience of illness including those of terminal patients, many of the artists represented have passed away. Permission to show these works has been gained from the estates of Jo Spence, David McDiarmid and Carol Jerrems, the friends of Brenton Heath-Kerr and the partner and collaborator of Bob Flanagan, Sheree Rose.
The history of medicine as a subject matter of art is perhaps as old as art itself, leaving behind its evidence in Stone Age amulets, idols, mosaics, hieroglyphics and illuminated manuscripts, through to the Western canon and the celebrated anatomical drawings of Da Vinci, the consumptive muses of the Pre-Raphaelites, the etchings of Hogarth, the suffering figures of Munch, and the self-portraits of Kahlo. The material record of human history tells us that people across all times, places, cultures and religions have grappled with expressing the transient and fragile nature of our fleshly, embodied human experience.4
The collection of works, new experiments and ongoing projects that comprise The Patient are all variously difficult, fearless, funny, painfully beautiful and unlovely. They range across media and connect to us as viewers and occasionally as participants through both familiar and leading-edge technologies. The artists in this exhibition deepen our own enquiries into the actual stuff of illness and disease, death and life – how they manifest viscerally and psychologically as well as socially and politically. The driving concern for me in presenting The Patient is to create a space for poetic, reflective and social forms of engagement with issues that we are all at some point touched by.
We will all be patient.
Bec Dean, Curator
2 The field of “Bio Art” is defined by one of its most prolific writers and artists, Eduardo Kac, as “a new direction in contemporary art that manipulates the processes of life.” Kac, E. Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2007), 18.
3 Art historian Amelia Jones has written extensively on the work of body-based performance artists. In Body Art she writes of ORLAN, Flanagan and Rose that they, “turn the body inside out, enacting the stubborn corporeality of the self while refusing any conception of this corporeality as fixed in its materiality.” Jones, A. Body Art: Performing the Subject (University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 226.
4 The Wellcome Collection in London, UK, holds the most diverse collection of medical objects, artefacts, books and materials relating to the medical humanities and the social history of medicine. Its publication The Art of Medicine tells the story of medicine through
art and artefacts. Anderson, J., Barnes, E., Shackleton, E. The Art of Medicine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).