Catalogue essay to accompany the exhibition Slippage: The Unstable Nature of Difference
Contemporary Art Space Chester, University of Chester, March 2015
Curated by Jo Thorne & Lesley Halliwell
SLIPPAGE: The Unstable Nature of Difference emerged from a dialogue that started some six years ago. Both of us are practicing artists who also have a personal and current experience of disability. Jo is a survivor of childhood cancer and an amputee and Lesley is the mother of a child with severe special needs. It is this shared area of experience that we explore further through the exhibition. We contend that visual art has the capacity to expand our understanding of embodiment to include a more diverse range of lived experiences. We have set out to challenge preconceptions of what is normal, what isn’t and more importantly, what it feels like to experience difference from the inside out rather than the outside in.
The twelve artists we have selected have their own personal relationship with disability yet we all ‘possess a multitude of abilities and disabilities’ 1 and will view what is on offer in our own way. We are delighted to have such a diverse range of artists taking part in the exhibition, some of whom confront head on our understanding of what it means to be different and offer a personal and intimate perspective. Other works take us beyond surface appearance and explore identity and a ’sense of self’ either through medical research or by exploring the invisible worlds of the mind. The central theme is our experience of embodiment; the way that we inhabit the world through our bodies and how we may respond to others.
The relationship between the ‘lived experience’ and medical science is evident in a number of the artists’ work. Andrew Kotting’s project Mapping Perception is based around his daughter Eden who was born with a rare genetic disorder. The project makes ‘visible the connections between scientific and artistic explorations of the human condition, probing the thin membrane between the able and the disabled.’2 Eden’s medical identity sits alongside everyday footage of her playing, painting, eating, drawing; all the things a little girl does. It is a reminder that behind medical research lies an individual story lived out by real people, like you and me.
Lisa Bufano and Jason Tschantre’s collaboration Home is not Home draws attention to a different kind of embodiment; a sense of alienation manifested through the mythical creatures that Bufano created in her performance pieces. Bufano was interested in corporeal difference and described her work as producing a gut reaction in the viewer that straddles repulsion and attraction.
There are many factors that make up a person’s identity which are influenced by contemporary values and norms. Eric Fong’s film Reflection shows people with facial disfigurements reflected in moving water. This powerful work challenges our own narcissistic feelings of our sense of self, a degree of which is important in the development of a healthy identity. Fong also draws our attention to ‘contemporary society’s obsession with unrealistic ideals of beauty.’3
Daksha Patel takes us beneath the surface, under the skin and inside the body. Using information gleaned from medical visualisation technologies she maps, measures and draws from the medical body attempting to fit it into a rigid system of representation. Patel challenges us to rethink the appearance of our bodies from the inside out, offering us the rare potential for visual equality.
Lesley Halliwell’s work If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed? uses the sound of her disabled son’s laughter to convey another aspect of identity which is not limited by preconceptions of appearance, culture or a medical diagnosis. Here, laughter acts as an equaliser, a universal human attribute.
In the photographic series, A View from Inside, Alexa Wright explores and re-presents the interior worlds of those experiencing episodes of psychosis. Unlike the people in Fong’s Reflection the individuals in Wright’s photographs appear completely ‘normal’, concealing their instability beneath. Karen Heald and Susan Liggett’s collaborative research project, In-between-ness, also explores different perceptions of reality, in this case for those undergoing anti-depressant treatment. Here, identity is not fixed but slips between different realms of reality. Heald and Liggett aim to evoke a sense of ‘in-between-ness’, an attempt to visualise the ephemeral and transitional spaces of the mind.
In contrast to Kotting’s rich relationship with his daughter, Paddy Hartley’s work, Mother’s Pride & Nativity, explores issues around eugenics and the designer child; an attempt to create perfection by tampering with genetics. Ironically, these ‘perfect’ ceramic babies strike poses beyond their physical and intellectual capabilities shifting them into the territory of the ‘abnormal’. Hartley also reminds us of an important distinction between ‘preventing illness and suffering and the elimination of unacceptable and devalued body forms and functions.’4
This is a theme particularly pertinent to Katherine Araniello’s practice as she challenges and disrupts society’s unacceptable/accepted attitudes to a range of disability issues through her subversive humour. Araniello has created the persona SickBitchCrips and, in Pity, she confronts us with a living embodiment of the 1970’s Spastic Society Collection Doll. Both funny and uncomfortable to watch, the piece forces the viewer to reassess their own responses to both disability and charitable giving.
Such power relations between the majority culture and minority groups continue to present challenges for society. Noemi Lakmaier’s work also explores ‘psychological implications of power, control and insecurity.’ 5 This is evident in One Morning in May, a film that documents Lakmaier's arduous 1 mile ‘walk’ to the City of London. Dressed in a smart business suit, dragging herself on her hands and knees, passers-by offer to help Lakmaier while others watch on incredulously.
Reactions to difference come in a range of guises and it was the recent 2012 Paralympics that brought questions about human enhancement to the fore. If you have integrated your prosthesis into your ‘lived body’ are you still disabled or, like Hartley’s ceramic infants, do you become super human? The relationship between the body and technology is explored in Jo Thorne’s work, Limbs Un-made, which references the dual identity between technologically abled and dis-abled bodies. Here, the limbs remain incomplete stressing the point that such optimism is not necessarily based in the reality of an able-bodied society.
Whilst we have highlighted some of our thinking in putting the exhibition together and expanded on some of the emerging themes, you will have your own responses to the works in the show depending on your own experience of difference. We have however, invited you to look and to stare within the safe confines of the gallery space, when perhaps under other circumstances you may have tried, out of politeness or embarrassment, to look the other way.
L. Halliwell and J. Thorne (2015)
1 World Health Organisation International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health [online] available at www.who.int/classifications/icf/en/
2 Kotting Proboscis [online] available at http://proboscis.org.uk/mappingperception/
3 Fong Reflection [online] available at http://www.ericfong.com/works/
4 Garland-Thomson ‘Integrting Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory’ in Feminist Disability Studies Indiana University Press 2011, p 28
4 Lakmaier [online] available at http://www.noemilakmaier.co.uk