Putting the ART in “ARTeries”: A Sciart Exhibition Review
By Kimberly Glassman, Convergence UK Representative
What happens when medical students pick up the proverbial paint brush? While some may think that, in the style of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, scientists produce art of their science - a neuron, image of the brain, or cell - the students at Imperial College London surprised viewers with provocative artworks that encompass feminist activism and ethical historical revisionism. Thought-provoking and innovative, this online sciart exhibition definitely puts the ART in ARTeries! Keep reading for a list of my favourite works and exclusive quotes from one of the artists and the exhibition curator.
“Covid-19 has unsurprisingly highlighted how dependant we are on the arts, whether it is literature, poetry, film or so on. It has undoubtably been the creative side of things that has been seeing people through. Personally, I have benefitted by being on this course through lockdown in ways I could never have anticipated.” Adina Smith
“Arteries” is an online exhibition of Imperial College London students on the BSc Medical Sciences with Humanities, Philosophy & Law course. Every year, their student exhibition brings together a mixed viewership from the arts and sciences that, according to curator Jennifer Wallis, provokes new discussion and conversation. This year, the online format was a reality the artist-scientists had to work around, and that they ended up working with. Those involved found a way to produce an online exhibition that reflects their diverse interdisciplinary backgrounds as well as their socially-distanced, lock-down state. While they are looking forward to returning to their physical format next year, Wallis says that, in the future, the project will embrace this online version in order to reach a broader audience.
“One of the challenges in teaching and learning about some of the topics we cover in the BSc is thinking 'across time' so that we can bring new theoretical lenses to bear on issues, but at the same time understand them in their own historical context. We have had brilliant discussions in class this year about things like the display of bodies in anatomical museums and how such display was, initially, part of a medical system that prized the dissected bodies of the poor and disenfranchised in order to advance medical knowledge. In turn, that stimulates conversation about best practice regarding modern-day body donation.” Jennifer Wallis
Landing on the exhibition homepage, we are met with a large scrolling platform with a cascade of seventeen artworks ranging from collage, photography, and videographer mediums. We first encounter the most topical piece by Lillie Drummer, “The Quarantine Routine,” which tries to use humour as a way to lighten the difficult times people are experiencing today. While Drummer selected her topic to discuss how humour is often used by medical professionals to communicate their experiences, such as Adam Key, Drummer admits “the production of this film itself became a form
of coping by allowing [her] to focus on the comic amusement that has emerged from the quarantine.” Jonathan Edwards’ piece follows in a similar vein of thought. “Don’t Panic” has us questioning how information is disseminated in a post-truth, Trump era dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. In a pastiche style, the work effectively investigates the politics of information sharing and democratising access to knowledge. Rounding out this topic, 'Don't panic' by Jonathan Edward
John Humm’s “Being Opposite Illness”
addresses the negative rhetoric of doctors as superheroes which denies them of their own bodies and prompts us to reflect on how we identify and categorise people as ‘non-people’ in the health profession.
“Art allows for conversations that, in other contexts, might be difficult to raise. It's not always easy to voice concerns about systemic issues, for instance, in formal channels like committees. Having an artwork publicly available that invites a consideration of those questions is perhaps a more fluid way in to important conversations.” Jennifer Wallis
One of my absolute favourite pieces of the collection has to be Ahmed Elgharably’s “Discussing Death with Anubis.” If there was one artwork I would suggest visiting, it would be this one. Elgharably uses YouTube and spoken word poetry to question the exploitation of Egyptian artefacts from the artistic, scientific, and viewer perspective. The work begins and ends with the Egyptian god of mummification and the afterlife, Anubis. Elgharably seamlessly moves from a systematic criticism of the museum goer, to an exceptional critical review of the explorer, challenges the curator, and poses ethical dilemmas to the scientist. Serving as a mirror in the form of poetry, Elgharably asks all the right questions and lays on a sense of accountability into the work of artists, scientists, and viewers that is not easy to ignore or forget.
'Distressed body' by Teresa Luu
'An ideal object' by Phoebe Ross
I was completely amazed by the collection of feminist critiques of historic and contemporary medical sciences. Art provided artists like Teresa Luu (“Distressed Body”) and Catherine McGarry (“NORMAL”) to reflect on the capitalisation of the female form and issues of trends like the ‘designer-vagina’. While Luu’s collage of the cosmetic body brilliantly took on the look of Cassandra O’Brien (for all those Doctor Who fans out there), McGarry’s interview-based video on vaginal surgery asked important questions, but I think had much more room to explore in the discussion. I look forward to seeing if she goes deeper in her next work. Taking a more historical approach in her collage, “An Ideal Object,” Phoebe Ross shocks viewers with a power-house quote by Arnaud-Éloi Gautier d’Agoty: “For men to be instructed, they must be seduced by aesthetics.” Reflecting on historical subjects such as Clemente Sussini’s 1782 wax Anatomical Venus, Ross reflects on how the female body is sexualised in some way, even when created as a tool of learning.
“What is striking in teaching the BSc is how the history of medicine/science, and issues like the politics of display, are not always given much space in medical curricula. Many students are surprised to learn about the history of the field in which they work - the Sims vaginal speculum, for instance, might be an instrument familiar to many, but its evolution (part of J. Marion Sims' experiments on enslaved women, without anaesthetic) is less well known. However, this year at Imperial I've been involved in a new strand of first-year teaching that builds opportunities to learn about exactly these kinds of histories into the curriculum.” Jennifer Wallis
Rachel Ruck, Sophia Terry, and Adina Smith each beautifully dive into depths of the medical female experience I didn’t know I needed to be dragged into - specifically the taboo subject of a miscarriage. Important in subject matter and beautifully transparent in execution, these works are some of the most emotionally powerful of the collection. 'Two Week Wait' by Sophia Terry
Terry’s “Two Week Wait” documents the
decay of a pomegranate, which traditionally serves as a symbol of fertility. The images are powerful, and I love the inclusion of poetry in the reflective journal which brings attention to a group of unseen women grieving alone (though I wish we could enlarge it and read the poetry).
“The combination of art and words (or essays in the case of our projects) enables us to engage with someone else’s experience in a way that is incredibly useful when attempting to develop a holistic approach to medical practice.” Adina Smith
I believe I actually let out a few tears watching Ruck’s “and I am a woman,” a video project which makes the point rephrasing and repositioning the agency of the woman during pregnancy, prioritising her needs over the foetus. Ruck replaces but with and in the following statements: “She is pregnant and she is a woman, she is terminating her pregnancy and she is a woman.” The wor takes the form of a short film recorded in the digital first-person narrative following a woman’s journey deciding to terminate her pregnancy due to the foetus’ diagnosis of anencephaly (a serious birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull). Controversial, touching, and insanely human, Ruck’s work gives speaks volumes to a silenced community without uttering a single word.
Closing out the exhibition is Adina Smith’s “Unlit Shadows,” a series of journalistic sketches reflecting the pain of watching your body return to ‘normal’ after a miscarriage, which also gives a nod to McGarry’s work, which we saw earlier. The drawings range from dark comedy, as in the comic phrase “I lost my husband, don’t worry you can get another one,” to breathtaking, evocative body outlines. Smith beautifully encapsulates the blending of humour, pain, and abstraction of thought that runs throughout these art-science reflections. The collection of sketches is shown in a video. The eerie silence of the film helps convey the feeling of loneliness. The outlines and shadows tell a succinct story full that is beautifully rendered and deeply emotional. Her finished sketches look similar to Kathe Kollwitz’ War (1921-22), a collection of sketches explaining the hardships of the home front during World War I, giving Smiths work a whole new meaning on what we mean by the unseen traumas of the female body. The artistic process, Smith claims, “allows for an incredibly reflexive process that is under-utilised in medical education.” The artist goes as far as to brilliantly point out that, “although medicine is of course a science, it is also deeply humanistic.”
'Until Shadows' by Adina Smith
Wallis, commenting on the digital format, claims: “Far from being something that is second-place to science, the arts have proven important to many of us in lockdown, whether that's visiting virtual galleries, listening to history podcasts, or creating work ourselves. I hope that sense of the value of the humanities sticks in the long term.” This exhibition has given us a thought-provoking collection of student works. Though some were better executed than others (such as those I have mentioned above), they all venture into uncharted and ambitious territories in art-science convergence that should be applauded. I cannot wait to see what the program will showcase in next year’s exhibition.
You can visit the online exhibition here.
The full interview with Jennifer Wallis and Adina Smith can be found here.