Feelings, figures, and a field ready to take centre stage: ‘Representing the Medical Body’, Science Museum, London, 28 March 2019

‘Representing the Medical Body’ took place at the Science Museum, London, on 28thMarch 2019. Words: Fiona Johnstone. Pictures: Lucy Lyons.

“Did you notice that everyone was constantly talking about their feelings?” asked a colleague, as we walked to Gloucester Road tube. We had just left the Science Museum, where we had been attending ‘Representing the Medical Body’, a one-day interdisciplinary workshop exploring artistic representations of the medical body throughout history.

It was true. So many of our discussions had focussed on the emotional impact of images and art objects; on the psychological challenges of working with ‘difficult’ subject matter; or on dissecting the sentiments that other people’s papers produced in us. My colleague mused that this might presage some larger shift in the field of art, aesthetics, and medical humanities. I wondered if it might be more to do with the expectations heaped upon art and visual culture, especially in relation to science and medicine, where art is often expected to provide a subjective or affective dimension to empirical enquiry.

Organised by Katy Barrett and Sarah Wade, the day was prompted by a series of recent commissions from contemporary artists which will be displayed in the five new Medicine Galleries opening at the Science Museum later this year. The symposium opened with sculptor Eleanor Crook’s overview of her commission, which responded to the theme of death, medicine and mortality. The finished work represents an imaginary Patron Saint of Medicine sheltering the patient within her skirts; Crook explained how it was conceived in response to votive objects from different world faiths, and asked us to consider the emotional investment that we make in statues.

Papers by art historians Natasha Ruiz-Gomez and Mechthild Fend both showed how medical images have often been shaped by the artistic values that they are entangled with. Ruiz-Gomez drew parallels between the Musée Charcot’s Ataxic Venus – a striking nineteenth-century anatomical wax cast that is both medical specimen and portrait of a patient – and the history of portraiture and religious art, in order to demonstrate the cultural construction of ‘objective’ medical evidence. Fend discussed the condition of ‘Plica Polonica’, or extreme entanglement of the hair, in relation to anxieties about national and bodily boundaries in the wake of the French Revolution; also referred to as ‘Caput Medusa’, this alleged disease prompts questions about what it means to look upon images of the sick.  Both papers demonstrated how aesthetics and affect play an important role in knowledge production, and made a compelling case for the value of reading medical objects and images through an art historical framework.

The affective properties of images and image-making were foregrounded in Sian Davey’s moving presentation on Looking for Alice, her prize-winning photobook about her daughter Alice, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. Davey, a former psychotherapist, started to photograph Alice as a way of addressing her own difficulty in loving her daughter; the result is simultaneously a celebration of difference, and a sobering meditation on society’s relationship to it. My own paper explored self-portraits produced in response to the ongoing AIDS crisis, proposing that AIDS necessitated a radical new approach to portraying the human body. Audiences are often expected to read such artworks as unmediated expressions of personal experience; against this, I argue that artworks cannot be reduced to subjective expression, but must always also be read in relation to their social and political contexts, as well as in dialogue with other artworks. Finally, a fascinating presentation by Zeynep Devrim Gursel explored an 1890s photographic album found in Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamit’s palace archive. The album contains formal portraits of female patients following surgery; dressed in hospital-issued uniform, each woman bears her abdomen to reveal a surgical scar; displayed on an ornate table besides each patient is a bell-jar containing the excised tumour. These visually compelling images, which are clearly based on the pictorial codes of formal studio portraiture, raise pressing questions about the origins of medical photography; the paper also provided a much-needed contrast to the predominantly Western focus of the other presentations.

Necessarily, if frustratingly, post-lunch papers were divided into parallel panels. I was lucky enough to catch papers by artist Liz Orton on her ongoing collaborative exploration of medical imaging (fittingly for the day’s unofficial emphasis on emotion and affect, Orton’s paper imaginatively addressed the artist’s experience of looking at her late mother’s medical images) and artist Alexa Wright and curator Hannah Redler Hawes, discussing ‘Sutured Selves’, a long-running interdisciplinary project that explores the personal experiences of heart recipients and donor families.

Suzannah Biernoff’s paper on the cinematic history of face transplants stood out for offering an interesting methodology for medical and cultural historians: select a significant medical breakthrough, and trace its cultural pre-history. Biernoff argued that our medical imaginaries are very often visual; to understand – and perhaps to intervene in – medicine’s trajectories of possibility, we need to know how images get under our skin, to what effect, as well as what their cultural and political meanings might be. I was sorry to miss Amanda Sciampacone’s paper on how cholera in the Victorian visual imagination revealed uncomfortable connections between colonial and imperial bodies, as well as Clare Barlow’s insider view of the Wellcome Collection’s redevelopment of “Medicine Now”.

Ludmilla Jordanova’s summing up was thoughtful and generous. She noted the seriousness with which the broad field of art and medicine is now finally being taken, and praised the strikingly interdisciplinary nature of this new landscape (speakers included artists and and art historians, curators and other museum professionals, medical humanities scholars, clinical researchers, and anthropologists). Observing the number of papers that foregrounded ambiguity as a key feature of visual cultural artefacts, Jordanova asked how we might better deal with visual ambiguity in the museum when wall labels are typically limited to less than 100 words. Perhaps, she suggested, museums need to consider transitioning towards a different mode of communication?

Finally, Jordanova raised an intriguing open question: why are we preoccupied specifically with this kind of work now? Or, to put the question another way, what is it about this particular moment that has generated such enormous interest in the relationship between the visual and the medical? ‘Representing the Medical Body’ was a hugely successful event – the organisers confirmed that they had received over 100 abstracts, and that tickets for the day had sold out within 20 minutes of the link going live – which arguably captures a field poised to take centre stage.

Fiona Johnstone is an associate editor at The Polyphony. Her works explores the intersections between art and visual culture and the medical humanities, and she is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Warwick, where she is part of an interdisciplinary team researching personalisation in medicine and digital culture.

Lucy Lyons is an artist and lecturer in drawing research and painting at City & Guilds of London Art School, and is a visiting lecturer at Open College of the Arts, University of Brighton, York St John, and University of Westminster. She has a PhD in drawing and has worked in medical sciences through researching medical museum collections since 2000, investigating how the action of drawing can lead to better understanding and appreciation of medical phenomena through slow looking.

‘Representing the Medical Body’ took place at the Science Museum, London, on 28 March 2019. The full programme can be found here.

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