Jack Moyse, You and I. Ffotogallery Cardiff.

Fiona Johnstone reviews an exhibition of photographic works by Jack Moyse, a young artist living with muscular dystrophy.

Blindfolded and barefoot, wearing only a faded pair of swim shorts, a young man stands in the middle of the market day bustle of a provincial French town. He is still, save for the exaggerated rise and fall of his chest with his breath, which feels laboured, perhaps even painful. Passers-by pause to read the words inked on his torso: Je suis Jack. Je suis handicapé. Qu’est ce que ca vous fait? Some mutter a response: “It is sad/tragic, but what can be done?” … “I don’t avert my gaze from you. For me, you are a person like everyone else. We all have our differences” … “It’s a cry for help. You are not that different. What do you expect from us?” One or two take advantage of the young man’s unseeing state to stare directly; others gaze more furtively, unwilling to be caught out in an unguarded moment of overt voyeurism.

The Swansea-based artist Jack Moyse developed this public performance as part of a 2022 residency at the photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles. Video documentation of the performance, sped up and edited down to a few minutes, was recently available to view as part of Moyse’s exhibition You and I at Ffotogallery Cardiff.[1] Evoking Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s observation that the person usually most adept at managing the staring encounter is the object of the stare (Garland-Thomson 2006, 178), this performance – and Moyse’s practice more broadly – offers a compelling response to, and critique of, the ableist gaze. For me, it brought to mind the work of a number of other non-normatively bodied artists including Laura Swanson, Hayley Morris-Cafiero and Kevin Connolly, all of whom have made memorable photographic self-portraits that play with, resist, return or otherwise subvert the viewer’s look.[2]

Moyse was diagnosed with Fascioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy (FSHD) when he was 17: his well-meaning consultant attempted to reassure him by saying that it would be his own “muscular dystrophy of choice”.[3] Moyse started using a camera a year later whilst recovering from a major operation; ten years on, he has developed an important body of work that explores the intersections of disability, masculinity and early adulthood, drawing on his own experience to refract a broader set of questions around the expectations and challenges encountered by disabled artists.

Trauma Porn

I was introduced to Moyse this summer by Daniel Regan, a photographic artist and Executive Director of the Arts and Health Hub. Regan and Moyse had met each other at a recent Bristol arts symposium on care and mental health intriguing titled Trauma Porn. I understand the term ‘trauma porn’ as acknowledging an increasing social imperative to publicly share upsetting experiences in the pursuit of catharsis and healing; it also conveys the sense of prurient titillation that might inadvertently be aroused by stories and images of pain and suffering. As a critical concept, ‘trauma porn’ invites us to respond thoughtfully to the popular idea that the primary task of an artist – and particularly an artist with first-hand experience of a mental or physical health condition – should be to expose or make visible those experiences for the edification and understanding of others. It was with these ideas reverberating in my head that I approached Moyse’s exhibition.

Whilst Moyse’s practice is based in self-portraiture, the curation of You and I cleverly resists imposing too heavy a personal narrative framework. A short paragraph at the entrance to the gallery (the only wall text in the exhibition) describes the work simply as a documentary series by a young artist attempting to understand the physical and mental impacts of living with a disability – the specifics of the disability are not elaborated on, allowing the exhibition to speak to wider societal issues as well as to the particularities of Moyse’s own experience.

The works are hung without titles, forcing the viewer to draw their own connections (for those that want them, titles are provided separately on a printed A4 sheet. A QR code for each artwork links to a SoundCloud recording of Moyse giving a visual description of each work). Line and form reverberate across multiple images: the curve of a shoreline echoes the sweep of a staircase or the bowed handle of a bone china mug; an abandoned row-boat submerged in a marshy estuary (sinking / suddo) resonates with an untitled self-portrait of Moyse in the bathtub. There are recurrent images of objects “out of place” (to paraphrase Douglas 1966): a dumped car overgrown with dense forestry; a mattress fly-tipped in front of a fire escape; a dead bird on a shoreline. Staircases are a conspicuous motif; visually suggestive of an art historical canon of images by noteworthy photographers (e.g. Eugéne Atget, Fredrick H. Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson), the titles of these works, measure / mesur (i), (ii) and (iii), give clues as to their more practical significance for Moyse’s day to day experience.

The curation plays with how much, and how quickly, Moyse is willing to reveal to the viewer. The first image encountered in the show is Moyse in shadow (glimpses of truth / cipolwg o’r gwirionedd); then as a reflection in a steamy bathroom mirror (relief / rhyddhad). The video documentation of the performance in Arles, which is perhaps the piece that requires the greatest degree of vulnerability from Moyse, is cocooned in a viewing space at the rear of the gallery.

Beyond Personal Catharsis

Some works are explicitly biographical whilst avoiding direct representation. Siblings / brodyr (one of the few colour-prints in the exhibition) is a contemporary domestic still life consisting of three raw eggs in a white bowl on a grey kitchen countertop, their cracked shells on a wooden chopping board to the right, and an empty green eggbox and folded tea towel behind them. Two of the creamy orange yolks are whole, whilst the third is broken: a neat and quietly moving metaphor for the genetic lottery of muscular dystrophy.

Other stand-out works included simple things done differently / pethau hawdd wedi wneud yn wahanol (ii) and (iii), each a wall-sized grid of sixteen sequential black-and-white images. The first is a frame-by-frame documentation of Moyse putting down and picking up a filled tote bag. Against an industrial backdrop of strong white verticals (deliberately echoed in the black and white stripes of Moyse’s shirt), Moyse tilts his whole body shot-by-shot to an unconventional forty-five-degree angle that finally allows him to place the bag on the ground before reversing the whole process. The pictures on the opposite wall record Moyse walking up to, sitting down in, getting up out of, and walking away from a director’s chair. The shapes made by his movements are eccentric and irregular, set in counterpoint against the perpendicular lines of the black corrugated iron structure behind him.

Both sets of prints strongly recall the photographic studies of human movement made by Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey in the late nineteenth century. Muybridge’s eleven-volume collection of photographs Animal Locomotion (1887) juxtaposed images of athletes in motion (reflecting late nineteenth-century conceptions of health and beauty) with pictures intended to depict “abnormal movement”, including (to cite just two examples) ‘an amputee on crutches’, plate 537 and ‘a paralytic child walking on hands and feet’, plate 539.[4] Establishing a hierarchical taxonomy from nude and semi-nude males and females to children and people with disabilities, to domestic animals, wild animals and birds, Muybridge’s project is widely seen as a model for the nineteenth-century pseudo-science of eugenics.[5] As a visual and thematic reference point, these echoes of Muybridge in Moyse’s work hint at the darker histories that underpin the ways in which disability is understood and experienced today.

Importantly, the exhibition aims to address disability at a practical, as well as aesthetic level (Moyse had been invited to rethink the whole gallery space after winning an open call from the Fffotogallery in partnership with Disability Arts Cymru.) Selected images are hung at appropriate eye-level for people in wheelchairs; audio descriptions are available for each work; ample seating and resting places are provided; and the programming includes a roundtable on the challenges facing young disabled artists.

Local newspaper headlines have tended to emphasise the therapeutic aspects of Moyse’s work (e.g. “Muscular Dystrophy: photographer Jack Moyse’s art helps him cope”, BBC News, 22 Jan 2023). However, this exhibition pushes beyond personal catharsis to something much more complex and interesting, offering a thoughtful set of reflections on disability, visuality, vulnerability, and the expectations placed upon disabled artists to make manifest their ‘lived experience’.

Fiona Johnstone is Assistant Professor in Visual Medical Humanities at Durham University.

Jack Moyse, You and I was at Ffotogallery Cardiff from 3 August to 23 September 2023. https://www.ffotogallery.org/programme/interventions-gallery-reset.

Jack Moyse is an artist and photographer based in South Wales. He is on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/notabrothel/

Works referenced

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2006. ‘Ways of Staring’. Journal of Visual Culture 5 (2): 131–270.


Notes:

[1] At time of writing, an online tour of the exhibition, including this video, can be viewed on Ffotogallery’s website: https://www.ffotogallery.org/programme/interventions-gallery-reset.

[2] For an overview of the work of these three artists, see Kristen Lindgren. ‘Looking at Difference: Laura Swanson’s Anti-Self-Portraits, Diane Arbus’s Portraits, and the Viewer’s Gaze.’ Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 9 (3), 2015: 277–94.

[3] Jack Moyse, You and I (exhibition catalogue). Cardiff: Ffotogallery, 2023; p.4.

[4] See Eadweard Muybridge, “Animal Locomotion,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed October 3, 2023, http://www.nineteenthcenturydisability.org/items/show/19

[5] See Sue Hubbard. “Motion capture: Eadweard Muybridge’s fascinating photographic experiments had a dark side.” Apollo, 172 (581), Nov. 2010, pp. 82+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A242590794/AONE?u=duruni&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=91b776c5. Accessed 4 Oct. 2023.

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