How is the relationship between private illness and public spectacle negotiated within the context of contemporary art? Poet Alice Hill Woods and artist Emelia Kerr Beale explore how fine art practices can reshape our engagement with, and understanding of, mental health issues.
And if we take the mind to be the seat of intellect, the body is our interface with the world, and our senses its line of communication, so that even the most dematerialized, conceptual work must take the body into account in some way.
Sally O’Reilly (2018)
A couple of months ago, I walked into the Royal Scottish Academy to be met with a giant, pale creature turning to look around behind its thin limbs, which were bent sharply above its two-toed feet. Artist Emelia Kerr Beale’s arresting sculpture – one of her standout degree show pieces – was exhibited as part of the Visual Arts Graduate Showcase 2019/2020. Positioned atop the ascending steps, it demanded every visitor’s first gaze. Through conversations and research, Emelia and I discuss its vital place within the medical humanities.
Fine art, like the medical humanities, attempts to do synthesising work in a number of ways. On viewing the awkward fragility of this creature, the spectator is invited to reimagine anxiety as sculptural object and its limitations: how do we even begin to cast the physiological and psychological terrain of mental health into a medium? Furthermore, if the medical humanities are mistakenly considered to be a “soft, ‘subjective’, and cultural supplement to a stable body of “objective” biomedical and scientific knowledge” (Kristeva et al. 2019, 36), then surely fine art occupies the softest of the ‘soft’ space that interacts with science. Conversely, located within this presumed softness is a force of considerable strength, representing dimensions of illness in aesthetic figurations beyond the remit of biomedical inquiries. The powerful, form-making imagination of fine art practices reshapes our engagement with, and thus our understanding of, myriad health issues. Emelia’s degree show piece demonstrates the extent to which a sculpture can quite literally take up space in order to address bodily realities.
Thinking about her degree show a year later, Emelia traces the connections that exist between her sculpture and her own experiences of hypermobility syndrome, anxiety and agoraphobia: “the sculpture was pulling together different threads of my experience without me fully realising – having time and space away from the work has assisted my ability to reflect on it.” From the outset, she was interested in bodies contained by spaces. Her research draws on animals depicted in medieval manuscripts, and the way they were used to moralise human behaviour. Visual references she gathered for inspiration included new-born horses and giraffes standing up for the first time. Emelia laughs that she vividly remembers a scene from the animated film, Madagascar, in which Melman, the anxious giraffe, is confined to a small space, his body contorted and his limbs jutting out in impossible angles. For her, this image typifies agoraphobia and the all-consuming intensity of needing to escape certain environments. She also sought to convey the sense that any space can feel restrictive – that even intangible structures, such as social pressure, can trigger agoraphobic feelings. In Emelia’s practice, animal bodies are tools through which she can explore human experience without forming a mirror image of the self. The politics of animality is a fascinating dimension of Emelia’s work, reiterating fine art’s limitless potential for expression, reflection and critique. The animal form resists literal readings of the suffering human body, yet it also invokes the sense of inseparability between the human and the non-human: in varying degrees, we are all shaped by transmitting signals indicating safety or danger, and all of us share an instinct for a painless existence.
The sculpture’s skeleton is made out of square steel, and chicken wire was used to shape the body. Emelia used newspaper, masking tape and Modroc to build the layers, because these materials were cheap, attainable and malleable. Her vision for the sculpture continuously evolved during the process of making it, but a principle feature was scale and mass. Emelia wanted to represent the feeling of a body awkwardly trying to navigate a space, which is why the sculpture is larger than life. She intentionally made the sculpture too big to leave her studio in one piece – she had to transport it in parts, reassembling it in new environments. Finally, the sculpture was covered in grey conte pastel, which meant that the surface changed whenever it was touched. At every moment, the sculpture becomes a different version of itself through its multiple interactions. Organic and sensitive, it is not dissimilar to a human body-mind.
A further compelling aspect of Emelia’s sculpture interrogates the relationship between private illness and public spectacle, and how this operates within the context of contemporary art. An exhibition is ultimately a performance, a complete departure from the closed doors of a healthcare practitioner’s surgery, although the act of making a sick or nonnormative body visible through display practices has huge ethical implications – take, for example, the bizarre intersecting of entertainment with corporeal abjection within ‘Bodies… the Exhibition’ (Hsu and Lincoln 2007). However, it is clear to me that Emelia’s work strives for a more tender mimesis. If the act of exhibiting radically destabilises the privacy of illness through visual retellings of discomfort, illness and embodiment, Emelia stresses that this doesn’t have to be unpleasant or alienating; in contrast, she wanted to create work that responded to anxiety but that was simultaneously playful and enjoyable to look at. Moreover, Emelia felt that the animal form of the sculpture could express the private facets of illness without revealing too much about the artist. She insisted on leaning away from the immediately personal, which manifested as an object that is gently subversive, deliciously shaped, and somewhat unifying.
In terms of the practicalities of mental health and fine art practices, there is much to delve into. Initially, Emelia describes the sense of community she experiences alongside other artists as having a palliative effect on her anxiety: “I am one of nine recent graduates taking part in GRAD JOB, a learning and unprofessional programme set up by Embassy Gallery, Edinburgh. Through workshops, conversations and collaborations, we develop structures for supporting ourselves and others. It has shown me the art world’s potential for kindness, and its capacity to facilitate nurturing environments.” The immersion within her own and others’ practices encourages a unique morphology that can probe tangible objects out of mystifying feelings; she sees herself as rooted within a creative ecosystem of shared health experiences. Nevertheless, when we talk about the psychological impact of degree shows, Emelia admits that there are often immense pressures placed on students: “there is this sense that each year must always be bigger and better than the year before, so degree shows are often a tough time for mental health.” She continues: “there’s also the pressure to outperform yourself, which is further exacerbated by art institutions overselling the degree show as a springboard for everyone’s ‘careers as artists’.” Inevitably, this accumulating culture of competition will be radically altered by COVID-19, but Emelia emphasises that there was already a need for change: “there’s a belief that a conventional degree show is the ideal mode of display for graduate work, but this isn’t necessarily the case – the traditional format is somewhat outdated, and the cancellation of shows raises important questions about accessibility and sustainability. However, the making and display of this sculpture was dependent upon a physical degree show, so I really sympathise with this year’s graduates.” Regardless of how they are experienced, this summer’s degree shows will be a testament to how deeply entangled health realities are with contemporary art.
Historians of modern art sought to conceptualise the ‘infectious’ nature of feelings as they transmitted from the artist to artwork, and then to the viewer (Gombrich 1982). A few decades later, it seems apt that contemporary art and its critics should expand this sense of contagion through creative conversations within the medical humanities. Health and illness are universal experiences, and there are rising demands for a language that can express them flexibly and fluently; there is potential for the medical humanities to be vitalised by the sumptuous, sinuous and deeply sincere textures of fine art. Emelia’s sculpture performs part of the complex but rewarding work we have yet to do.
Emelia Kerr Beale has an upcoming group show, TH4Y, with GENERATOR Projects, Dundee. She is an Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) graduate, and her sculpture won the Arusha Gallery Award at the RSA Visual Arts Graduate Showcase 2019/2020. She has held residencies at Sweeny’s Bothy, Isle of Eigg, in conjunction with ECA and The Bothy Project (2019) and Dumfries House, in partnership with ECA and The Royal Drawing School (2020). You can find her at: emeliakerrbeale.co.uk
Alice Hill-Woods is in the final stages of an MA (Hons) in English Literature at the University of Glasgow, where her research interests span interdisciplinary illness narratives, trauma studies, avant-garde poetics and ecotheory. Her poems have been published by, or are forthcoming from, Streetcake Magazine, SPAM zine, The Poetry Society, Speculative Books, Gargouille Literary Journal, From Glasgow to Saturn, and others. You can find her at: alicehillwoods.wordpress.com
Gombrich, E. H. 1982. “Expression and Communication.” In Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, 171-190. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
Hsu, Hsuan L. and Martha Lincoln. 2007. “Biopower, Bodies… the Exhibition and the Spectacle of Public Health.” Discourse 29 (1): 15-34.
Kristeva, Julia, Marie Rose Moro, John Ødemark, and Eivind Engebretsen. 2019. “The cultural crossings of care.” In Routledge Handbook of the Medical Humanities, edited by Alan Bleakley, 34-40. London: Routledge.
O’Reilly, Sally. 2018. The Body in Contemporary Art. London: Thames and Hudson.