An ambitious project that leaves you wanting more: 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 tomorrow, and following on from Wendy Lowe’s review last week, artist Angela Maddock gives her thoughts on the Bristol installation of the show (The Heart of the Matter, Centrespace and the RWA, Bristol 14 July to 19 August 2018).

Sofie Layton’s hearts are luminously beautiful, like lanterns. These are the first things we notice when we enter the basement exhibition space at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) – I’m visiting the exhibition with my son, a final year nursing student – and we are intrigued. Ten of them, each covered with a glass cloche or bell jar, sit on a stainless-steel table; four are bleached by spotlights, giving them the appearance of fine porcelain. Yet, close up – for this work draws you straight in – the method of their making is revealed in the visible contour lines of the digital printer’s nozzle. There is something clinical about this, a robot for making hearts, a machine for Making the Invisible Visible, yet we both enjoy those contour lines, find ourselves visibly tracing the edges in an action that reflects how the making of a body and all its associated organs is itself a process of following a blueprint, a process where there can be occasional slips, a blur in the reproduction that engenders something unanticipated and often problematic.

Sofie Layton, Making the Invisible Visible, 2016.

There’s a risk that when art meets medicine, art becomes instrumentalized: the needs of medicine somehow dominate and art becomes understood as illustration or illumination. This is resisted in the catalogue where there is a real sense of art enabling agency, of affording different ways of thinking – on all sides. Catherine Lamont Robinson describes how her participation in one of the project’s studio workshops enriched her own interdisciplinary practice; another workshop participant values the reflective experience of the workshop; Cardiologist Chiara Bucciarelli-Ducci writes of her own enrichment and, somehow, I can see this on the pages, in their handling, their interaction, their gestures. Yet I am not sure it has completely succeeded here, as exhibition.

Sofie Layton, Home is Where the Heart is, 2018. Image Stephen King.

Collaborations of this nature are about discussion, finding parallels, differences, new ways of thinking, making, sharing. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m not convinced that their main concern should be the end product, yet this is what an exhibition demands. This does raise particular concerns for curation: what to show and share from this unique experience, a project that brings together ‘patients, parents, clinicians, artists and scientists’ (Sofie Layton) to get at the ‘heart of the matter’? It is ambitious and, somehow, we are left with not quite enough. There are works that play on the sublime nature of the heart, like the tender glinting heart suspended from the roof tiles in The Home is where the Heart is and the darkly playful photographic series My Core where the photographer, Stephen King, documents a young man and his constant companion, a giant-sized plush-covered jewel of a heart which he awkwardly embraces, hauls over his shoulder as he walks, as if struggling with the weight of this (his own) body. Yet, for both of us, there was not enough evidence of process, at least not enough as is available in the catalogue – vibrant, vivid and rich looking evidence from workshops, dirty hands, a collapsing of distance between thinking and feeling, that can feel elusive in the exhibition.

We both hope that further iterations of the work might include more evidence of the what seems to be a very rich narrative. We enjoyed the votive-like Heart Narratives II, a panel of embossed aluminium and copper plates and embroidery, and listening to the mother’s experience in Sacred, but wanted a greater sense of what agency art might offer.

In Bristol The Heart of the Matter is shared across two sites, the RWA and Centrespace. A fifteen-minute walk separates the two, something that itself requires a healthy heart. Centrespace is located in the narrowed and gritty artery that is Leonard Lane, and here the exhibition begins with works very similar to those at the RWA, those lantern hearts, the blueprints and the soundscape. As if, perhaps, the curators were not confident everyone would make the journey between the two. I’m not sure of the logic behind this arrangement, perhaps necessity, but this venue might have featured more of the workshop outputs, the engaging series of large-scale drawings and clay sculptures so present in the catalogue, as well as Sofie Layton’s very accomplished practice. This would have enhanced and challenged what at times can be a very clinical aesthetic, and may have more accurately reflected what I intuit the wider project to have achieved.

The Heart of the Matter will be presented at the Copeland Gallery in London (1 – 11 November 2018).

Angela Maddock is a freelance lecturer and artist and is currently ‘maker in residence’ with the staff and students of the Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery and Palliative Care at King’s College London. She is also an honorary research fellow at Swansea College of Art. 

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