Pilgrimage to/of the heart: exhibition review ‘The Heart of the Matter’

In anticipation of the opening of ‘narrative cardiology’ exhibition The Heart of the Matter at the Copeland Gallery in London in November, Wendy Lowe reviews this summer’s Bristol installation of the show (The Heart of the Matter, Centrespace and the RWA, Bristol 14 July to 19 August 2018).

Artist Angela Maddock’s review of the Bristol exhibition will be published on The Polyphony next week. 


“Though my heart has its reason

The reason doesn’t know”

–      Helena Ward,  The Lake


‘How does it feel

to be a heart?’

For all I know is Love

And I find my heart Infinite

and Everwhere!

–      Hafiz


Whatever your vocation, be in allowance of a necessary heartbreak

–      David Whyte


What could be more important than the workings of the heart, that life-giving and sustaining organ that acts as a compass through the difficult terrain of our journeys? This exhibition explores the relationship between cardiology and the lived experience of a troubled heart, using art, sound and movement. The Heart of the Matter began when the creators, bioengineer Giovanni Biglino and artist Sofie Layton, realised that the heart is both medical and poetic. Intertwining these themes, the exhibition provides a rich substrate for exploring the heart in relation to both clinical and metaphysical contexts.

The Heart of the Matter. Image Stephen King.

The exhibition is split across two locations in Bristol. The first site I visited, Centrespace, held an array of visual, tactile and auditory pieces that captivated me as soon as I walked in. Behind delicate screens of a more ephemeral nature than usually encountered in the industrial NHS, were altars of hearts created by 3D imaging, each contained within a glass bell jar. This powerful symbolism reminded me of the individualised and contained nature of our heart songs, which are so often shaped by entrenched ideas about what it means to be a human – healthy or sick, normal or pathological in our anatomy. This theme was carried through in Blueprints, where the walls were adorned with pictures of the heart from different anatomical and poetical perspectives. Interspersed with textual accounts of patients’ lived experiences, the exhibition yielded a veritable cornucopia of heart reflections.

This ability of art to reflect back the subjective experience of both patients and medical practitioners addresses a void so often apparent in the biomedical world. In this exhibition, art provides a doorway through which to see things differently. For example, one person’s vision of her ‘soldier’ heart – the strength and perseverance required in the face of adversity – had inspired a hologram of the heart contained within a cube. As I leant in to gain a closer look at the hologram, which was truly fascinating, I startled as I saw someone appearing overhead, looking at me as I looked at the heart. By this trick of a mirror, I was reminded of Foucault’s writing on the gaze and how formative of the self this was – he thought the idea of looking for a self was like looking into a mirror image of infinite regress, an abstraction rendered meaningless.[1]Whereas the experiential meaning for me of the omnipotence of the gaze in the context of an exhibition on the heart made me feel strangely protective of this usually hidden part of ourselves.

Sofie Layton, Sacred, 2018. Image Stephen King.

The RWA gallery held an additional two spaces that could be physically entered into. The evocation of an operating theatre with heart muscle cells on stained glass windows/walls of Sacred was a beautiful testament to what can often seem mechanical and harsh in the world of the NHS. The finale for me was the film inside the darkened room of the RWA gallery where lines, images, colours, sound and music combined to draw together the different threads of the conversations started in the other heart spaces. Here the human form became prominent, accompanied by whales, mermaids, trees, coral reefs: drawn from the unconscious and the feminine, these moving images seemed to suggest that there remains much more still to unfold from this initial journey into The Heart of the Matter.

This is a rich exploration of what matters to the heart in the context of lived experience and medical practice. Once this exhibition has been installed in its new London venues (V&A, 22-23 September 2018 as part of Digital Design Weekend; and the Copeland Gallery, 31 October to 11 November 2108), I encourage you to experience it for yourself, as it offers a meaningful and moving meditation on the value of continued conversation between the poetic heart and the organ of medical science.

[1] Foucault, M. (1988).  Technologies of the Self. A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Ch 2 inTechnologies of Self. Martin, L.H., Gutman, H., Hutton, P.H. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

Wendy Lowe is a Senior Lecturer in Medical Sociology and Medical Education, Module Lead for the Human Science Public Health module in Years 2 and 3 of the MBBS and GEP at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. Her PhD explored how health professionals are educated.


The Heart of the Matter

I enter

the heart space.

The labyrinth

of my heart

hoping to find

a revelation

that will unlock

the secret heart

I carry within.



fine gossamer threads,

screens with words

and images of the


lie models and pictures,


and representations.

A rubik cube

of the complexity

of strength

and vulnerability,


never to be solved

as it clicks

endlessly away

to the room.


as if we were

solitary witnesses

in a dis-inhabited

chamber of the heart.


Bell jars


plastic models

of different hearts.

Fine filigrees

reaching up

like coral beds

in the deepest oceans.

Secret anatomies

made visible

like ancient Saints’ reliquaries

held onto

as manifestations

of the divine.


The spirit of


between science

and experience


this exhibition

of the heart.

A cry for conversation

between the inner

and the outer

as I enter

different spaces;

sacred rooms

of operating theatres,

light filled altars,

darkened chambers.

Inside a darkened


a soldier’s heart

fighting on

startles me


as I am drawn in.

A figure looms


viewing me

while I view the heart.

The gaze –

biomedical, patriarchal,

omnipotent –

is an absent presence here.

An abstraction

that still haunts


as it defines

parameters of the heart.


As a fitting finale,

I sit in a dark



a film

that draws together

the different aspects

of the show.

Humans appear –

hands, bodies,

eyes and breath.

So do whales and mermaids;

lines, light, colour

and sound.

Movement through

and beyond

as the heart

becomes embedded

in the context

of what it may

mean to be human

and be carried

by this fragile

yet strong organ.

Who is seen

with more


than perhaps

ever before.

And yet

who seems to be


further off

into an ever

retreating horizon.



I see hearts




chewing gum


on dirty


(these intrigue me

the most);

Clouds, leaves,

in windows,


throughout my house.

As a reminder

of the constancy

of that

which is bigger

than me.


– Wendy Lowe, 6 August 2018

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