Blood & Bones: an exhibition on living with cancer

Art historian and curator Agnese Reginaldo shares her experience of creating a public engagement programme for the exhibition Blood and Bones: Living with Cancer (UCLH until 24thApril 2019).

Tom Corby, Blue Trilby, 2019

'If I am going to have to be ill, I may as well do something interesting with it' - Blood & Bones online diary, Tom Corby, January 2013.

Blood & Bones: Living with Cancer is an exhibition of work by internationally exhibited, award-winning artist Tom Corby, whose poignant images combine medical/clinical and personal data relating to the artist’s Multiple Myeloma, with the aim of tracking and sharing  his haematological cancer.

The exhibition, running from 1st March – 24th April 2019 at University College Hospital’s the Street Gallery in Euston Road, London, is curated by Dr Marquard Smith and Dr Rishi Das-Gupta and supported by Macmillan. It aspires to empower patients as individuals to take ownership of their personal medical data creatively, enabling them to better control and enrich the day-to-day experience of living with a serious illness.

When I was asked to join Blood & Bones to take care of the public engagement programme, I felt both flattered and overwhelmed. Bringing the concerns of the exhibition beyond the gallery space did feel like a demanding task since as a public we don’t always like to talk about cancer.

As a child, I remember people gloomily talking about ‘A Malatia’, referring to cancer. ‘A Malatia’ is a term in Neapolitan dialect whose closest translation into English would be ‘The Disease’. I wondered about the nature of ‘The Disease’, picturing it as a sort of life’s mystery for which treatment is ineffective. Some other people, I remember, used to – and sometimes still do – refer to cancer as ‘The Monster’. The word ‘cancer, dreadful and serious, is tacit and tends to be ‘awash in significance’[1]

Blood & Bones reflects both the clinical and the social imagery of the disease. It is a project that dismisses metaphor, instead showing and sharing, with a candid eye, what it means to live with cancer. From private to public, intimate to clinical, Corby’s work follows broken narratives that include both polarities; the warm personal feelings contrast with dry medical reports providing the basis for thought-provoking conversations on the subject.

Tom Corby, Stoicism Index, 2019

This is what the public engagement programme for Blood & Bones wants to amplify. Building on the artist’s honest experience of cancer, this programme aims to provoke a collective empathic response in its audience. Contributions from patients, carers, clinicians, historians and artists keen to share their experiences and expertise, helps extend the reach of the content of the exhibition beyond the gallery space.

The programme has included a series of artist and curator’s tour as well as a symposium at UCL Institute of Education, including contributions from: Gilly Angell (member of the UCLH Patient Experience Group and the UCLH Arts Committee.); Dr Agnes Arnold-Forster (Medical and Cultural Historian, Roehampton University); Professor Tom Corby (artist, Associate Dean of Research, Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, UAL); Dr Fiona Johnstone (People Like You, University of Warwick); Dr Guy Noble (UCLH Arts Curator); Dr Marquard Smith (curator, UCL Institute of Education); and Sarah Josefsberg and Zoe Large (Macmillan Patient Experience and User Involvement, UCLH). The event also included a special preview screening of New York-based artist Lana Lin’s The Cancer Journals Revisited (2018).

Together with Macmillan Patients Users and User Involvement we have been able to deliver a Zine workshop to teenagers living with cancer enabling them to share their experiences and ultimately to better understand what sort of support we can collectively give to these going through the cancer journey. This workshop will also be extended to a wider public on Wednesday 23rdApril at Wellcome Collection where we will invite people with and without direct experience of cancer to realize zines that represents the multiple ways of perceiving cancer.

The exhibition is an invitation to talk openly about patients’ experience in order to improve collective knowledge of this not fully understood and deadly disease.

[1]Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and It’s Metaphors, London: Penguin 2009.

Agnese Reginaldo is an art historian and curator whose work focuses on the intersection between art and well-being. She works in collaboration with artists, academics, and galleries with the aim of creating a more effective connection between the public and contemporary art.

1 thought on “Blood & Bones: an exhibition on living with cancer

  1. Thanks for this. I followed your link to Tom’s website to view his work. Really interesting and witty comment on the usefulness or otherwise of measuring our emotional responses.

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