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Visualising Illness

Drawing on the varied perspectives of artists, art historians, curators, art therapists, clinicians and social scientists, this Wellcome-funded project looks at contemporary artworks that emerge from first-person encounters with illness.  These might be self-representations, or works produced by an artist or photographer working in close collaboration with the ill person. What is at stake, we ask, in reading these visual artefacts as subjective expressions of pain and suffering – or of humour, resilience or hope?

Although the literature on visual representations of illness has increased substantially in recent years, it has rarely focused specifically on contemporary expressions of the experience of being ill. We are particularly interested in an approach that pays equal attention to both the therapeutic and aesthetic qualities of such works; this methodology will, we hope, allow us to overcome the surprisingly inflexible disciplinary boundaries between art history, fine art, and art therapy.

The project aims to establish a network of artists, clinicians and researchers interested in exploring the following questions:

  • What is distinctive about the visual image as a means of communicating the experience of illness? Do visual expressions of illness differ from literary ones, or are there themes and structures common to both?
  • To what extent do contemporary visual expressions of illness draw on traditional iconographies of pain and suffering? What is the influence of (for example) representations of the Passion in religious art, or of the Romantic tradition of the ‘suffering’ artist?
  • How might art historians respond productively to works produced in a therapeutic context that are not considered to be aesthetically ‘interesting’?
  • What are the ethical issues associated with exhibiting expressive portrayals of illness?  How should this kind of material be displayed, and in what contexts?

A Small Grant in Medical Humanities from the Wellcome Trust supported a two-day programme of events to develop this project.  The programme (14th and 15th November 2015) comprised a public lecture and panel discussion on the Friday evening, and a workshop for invited participants on the Saturday.

The public panel discussion included a lecture by historian Joanna Bourke, and a panel discussion with artist Deborah Padfield, Joanna Zakrzewska (Honorary Professor, University College London Hospitals) and Alan Radley (Emeritus Professor, Social Sciences, Loughborough University). This event was well attended, attracting approximately fifty people from a variety of academic and non-academic backgrounds. The speakers’ presentations and panel discussion were recorded and are available as podcasts on the Visualising Illness website (http://www.bbk.ac.uk/art-history/research/visualising-illness).

The Saturday workshop involved a series of short presentations by participants and two discussion groups, the first considering the curatorial issues associated with exhibiting artworks that emerge from an encounter with illness, and the second debating the significance of such works for clinical practice and public health policy.

The results of these discussion groups were fed back to the participants via email, and a record of the workshops and the new research questions that arose from them has been posted on the Visualising Illness website (http://www.bbk.ac.uk/art-history/research/visualising-illness/QuestionsRaisedAtVisualisingIllness.pdf) .

The event received a review on Durham University’s Centre for Medical Humanities website (http://centreformedicalhumanities.org/review-of-visualising-illness-at-birkbeck-november-14th-15th-2014-by-jac-saorsa/).

Dr Biernoff is using the Visualising Illness website as a teaching tool for the MA option course ‘Exhibiting the Body’.

For more information, or to join our email list, contact the project convenors, Suzannah Biernoff s.biernoff@bbk.ac.uk and Fiona Johnstone fijohnstone@hotmail.com

Join the conversation on twitter by using the hashtag #Visillness