Dept of History of Art | Research | Visualising Illness | Project gallery | Mark Morrisroe, Untitled (Self-Portrait), Polaroid negative, c. 1988-89
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Mark Morrisroe, Untitled (Self-Portrait), Polaroid negative, c. 1988-89

The American photographer Mark Morrisroe (1959-89) was one of the earliest artists to create a first-person visual account of the ‘AIDS experience’,[1] documenting his hospitalisation and death in a series of intimate black and white Polaroid self-portraits, many of which present the ailing artist in semi-erotic poses. These might seem incongruous with his critical state of health: as the historian of medicine Sander Gilman has argued, there is a strong cultural assumption that the ill body will be visually marked as ugly and undesirable.[2]

In this image the artist lies on a hospital trolley, his right arm tethered to an intravenous drip, his body contorted so that his head turns towards the camera as his torso twists away, his gown falling away to reveal buttocks, legs and genitals. Conventionally this exposed, contorted posture might be read as expressing the pain and vulnerability of a man in the last few weeks of his life. Yet the twisted body has connotations not only of pain, but also of ecstasy; the bound arm hints at sadomasochistic practices; and the bared buttocks, coupled with the cool directness of Morrisroe’s gaze, suggests both challenge and invitation.

What parallels might be drawn between the sick body and the sexual one, between erotic and clinical experience? Is the ill body still marked as ugly and undesirable in contemporary art and visual culture? Might the use of an erotic visual vocabulary (as in the case of Morrisroe) allow a critically ill subject to represent him or her self as simultaneously vulnerable and empowered?

Text by Fiona Johnstone

[1] Jane Hudson, in Teresa Gruber, ‘There Was a Sense of Family...’ The Friends of Mark Morrisroe (Nurnberg: Verlag fur Moderne Kunst, 2012), p. 78.

[2] ‘The Body Beautiful and AIDS’ in Sander Gilman, Health and Illness: Images of Difference (London: Reaktion Books, 1995), pp. 115–172.