How can artworks question prevailing norms and assumptions in medicine and healthcare? Imogen Wiltshire argues that the work of artist Rebecca Harris plays a critical role in exploring and addressing stigma and preconceptions about the fat body.
This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to submit a short text or creative response exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection.
Untitled (Stop Tap / Value) (2012) by Rebecca D. Harris suggests a piece of flesh, twisted and inserted into a valve attached to a bright red stop tap; the implied soft lumpen shape (invoked by the materiality of stuffed tights) is juxtaposed with hard metallic plumbing apparatus. The work belongs to a series called Obscure Objects of Obesity in which Harris uses, for the most part, found objects and the medium of textiles, to examine and question biomedical attitudes towards regulating the fat[i] body, and to explore and represent, in distinctively visual means, how changes in body weight are registered, felt and experienced.
While it is not strictly necessary to know anything about Harris’ biography in order to think about her artworks and their possible meanings, her artistic practice stemmed, at first, from her own experience and ‘reconciliation’, as she describes it, with her body.[ii] She had been due in 2012 to undergo gastric bypass surgery but changed her mind, cancelling the operation having gone through, as she explains, a process of re-evaluating her own body by engaging with the discourses of fat studies and fat activism which question and counter the abjection, marginalisation and pathologising of the fat body.
Harris began to explore and call into question in her artwork how fat bodies, and fat women’s bodies in particular, are delineated as deviant, non-conforming and in need of controlling and reshaping. Untitled (Stop Tap / Value) can be understood as a critical reflection on gastric procedures that intervene in the intestines in order to limit consumption and absorption. The plumbing parts imply mechanical disciplining of depersonalised, decontextualised and disembodied flesh, with the mechanical tap controlling and regulating the workings of the body. The tights, associated with codes of femininity, call to mind the regulation of women’s bodies especially as sites for debates about size, beauty and health.
Given that an aim of the Thinking Through Things project is to probe the function of objects as ‘provocations to thought’, the medium of this work is particularly interesting. There exists a well-known and well-documented tradition in art, established since the early twentieth century, of artists adopting and reconfiguring found objects to provoke new, often unsettling and sometimes humorous, associations (which originated largely with Dada and Surrealism). In Stop Tap / Value, the individual components of the tights and plumbing paraphernalia, and, in other artworks by Harris, embroidery frames (e.g. Life Sucks (2012) and Untitled (Body Modification) (2013)) have their own connotations as objects in the world, retaining their ‘thingness’, as the artist puts it. But the objects are repurposed and reframed to generate new meanings and invite critical debate about weight loss surgeries.
The capacity of objects as ‘things’ to provoke and problematise on the topic of ‘obesity’ is shown – in a different way – by the multiplicity of responses, some conflicting, to John Isaacs’ I Can’t Help The Way I Feel (2003), a 2 metre tall sculpture of a headless mass of bulging flesh, which used to be on display at the Wellcome in the old Medicine Now gallery (which closed in 2018, and was replaced by the Being Human gallery in 2019). While Isaacs’ work was described as telling ‘the story of obesity as an emotional landscape from the viewpoint of the patient’, for others, it perpetuated offensive and damaging stereotypes. Charlotte Cooper, for example, argued in 2016 that in the work ‘a fat body is rendered as a diseased, pitiful, sexless, grotesque blob on legs. I think the title is stupid and affected so I call it The Blob. This blob has no head or identity, it is an unending eruption of abjection.’[iii]
In another work, Skin as Repository, Harris explores the skin as a key location in which changes to body weight are registered. She took the image of stretch marks (often caused by changes in body size) and abstracted them into patterns, machine embroidering them onto calico. In doing so, she works within a rich, established tradition of artists using fabric as metaphors for the skin (see Magdalena Abakanowicz, Louise Bourgeois, Sarah Lucas).
Objects, of course, mean different things to different people. As an art historian, the metallic objects pinning the corners of the fabric in Skin as Repository connoted to me surgery in general terms, and I wanted to find out more about their specific usage. I showed them to a group of doctors and surgeons who explained that they are a type of forceps which, in this case, are too small to hold the skin and would not be used in suturing because they would not provide grip or be able to fix the needle. Thinking about objects and context, it seems interesting that, over the course of this discussion, prompted by my technical question, the objects again took on, or perhaps retained, their original function as very specific instruments of highly specialised surgical practice, decontextualised this time from the calico component of the artwork.
Harris’ exploration is part of a broad field of enquiry in which objects, artworks and images play critical roles in exploring and addressing stigma and preconceptions about the fat body. In ‘Reframing Fatness: Critiquing ‘Obesity’’, Evans and Cooper argue that the role of the critical medical humanities is not to offer means to ‘‘tackle obesity’ better’ but rather to ‘foreground alternative understandings of fatness beyond pathology and promote more socially just engagements between medicine and fat bodies.’[iv] In this framework, the visual has become a key medium to address perceptions and to articulate experiences, and Harris is not the only visual artist working within this paradigm.
In the realm of ‘high’ art there has been, as is well documented in art history, a sustained engagement with questioning and subverting the ways in which the female body is represented, controlled and contained. During the 1990s, Jenny Saville painted large canvases of expansive, fleshy female nudes, often with oversized hands and fingers clutching at bulging fat; in Propped (1992), the figure seems to teeter precariously on a stool, threatening to topple over. Saville’s paintings have been read as deliberately uncomfortable and provocative images that call into question society’s views of non-conforming bodies.[v] Since then, a range of artists and performers have addressed this subject. Another recent area where visual strategies are deployed to explore perceptions is in comics: The Weight of Expectation, for example, which was the result of a collaboration between comic artist Jade Sarson and sociologist Oli Williams, explores ‘how stigma associated with bodyweight and size gets under the skin and is felt in the flesh.’[vi]
For me, two of the most critical issues to emerge from the first Thinking Through Things workshop in February were, first, how the purpose, materiality and design of objects facilitate exploration of present-day concerns relating to health and agency (exemplified by Jen Groves’ session on object-based impact in relation to sex and sexuality). The second, which was prompted by our consideration of a selection of fascinating artists’ books, has to do with the role of artworks in questioning prevailing norms and assumptions in medicine and healthcare. Stop Tap / Value and the Obscure Objects of Obesity project speak, I think, to both of these wider concerns. The process of defamiliarising and recontextualising objects provokes enquiry and debate in ways that are situated within what Fiona Johnstone has described as the recent ‘visual turn’ of the medical humanities.
Imogen Wiltshire is a Wellcome Trust ISSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow in History of Art at the University of Leicester, where she is currently writing a book on therapeutic art practices and modernism in the first half of the twentieth century, and researching the representation of pain and the exploration of biology and human reproduction in sculpture in post-war Poland.
[i] On the use of the words ‘fat’ and ‘fatness’ in fat activism (as opposed to ‘obese’ and ‘obesity’) as a means of ‘self-definition and in order deliberately to avoid terms that pathologise fatness’, as Cooper and Evans put it, see Charlotte Cooper, ‘Fat Studies: Mapping the Field’, Sociology Compass 4.12 (2010), pp. 1020–34.
[iv] Bethan Evans and Charlotte Cooper, ‘Reframing fatness: Critiquing ‘obesity’’ in A. Whitehead et al. (eds.), The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities (Edinburgh, 2016), 225–241: 225–226.
[v] Michelle Meagher, ‘Jenny Saville and a Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust’, Hypatia, 18. 4 (Autumn – Winter, 2003), pp. 23-41.