Each year, for selected exhibitions, Neil Walker, the Curator of the Djanogly Art Gallery throws out the following challenge to the PhD students of the University of Nottingham:
‘Can you create a short paper which links your own research area to a work of art currently being exhibited in the gallery?’
A few weeks ago Kezia Scales, whose PhD topic is the person-centred care approach, and Fiona Birkbeck, who is examining client/expert relationships in the NHS and Education, and who both recently presented papers at the IMH conference, joined the successful applicants. The six chosen PhD candidates received training and advice from Mark Rawlinson, Head of the Department of Art History and Eleanor Forward of the Graduate School on how to make and explain links from their own research to art works constructed entirely from paper and displayed in The First Cut exhibition, from 29th April to 9th June, 2013.
On the evening of the event, Kezia went first, standing beside her chosen work – ‘Upon the End of Your Feral Days’ by Chris Jones. A powerful papier mache recreation of a motorbike in decay. It seemed broken and discarded, the colours murky, the shine all gone but as Kezia began to speak, the audience could see that the motor bike actually had shoots of regeneration, new life curling up from its base.
As she said, ‘On first impression, this title seems to say it all. Once, this bike might have been a symbol of speed, vitality, youth, freedom, sexuality, danger, power – but now? It has reached the end of the road. With its eroding edges and gaping holes, this bike seems to signify nothing but loss and decay.
Similarly, we often assume that older people living in a care home have reached the end of the road. No longer able to stay at home, dependent on the assistance of others, they are characterised primarily in terms of loss and decline: the loss of youth, independence, productivity, usefulness. Perhaps worse: the loss of dignity, individuality, identity.’
She encouraged us to look more closely, in order to see the tendrils of wire stretching upwards from the disintegrating body of the bike. ‘However tentative, these wires provide a reminder that life prevails,’ she said. ‘Out of the memory of what was, arises what is and what will be.’
Kezia went on to say that the motorbike with its memories and its still rakish stance, reminded her of a particular resident from her ethnographic research: Leo. Leo is living on a special dementia unit that is attempting to implement person-centred care. Recalling, as an example, Leo’s delight in a joke shared with a care worker as they sat in the sun together, Kezia told us that, ‘Leo clearly hasn’t reached the end of the road. He is still connecting with his environment, and the people around him – just as this static bike can stir feelings and responses in us as observers, Leo is still sharing with us his own pleasure in living.’ One care assistant has created a ‘memory book’ that shows photos of Leo in his navy uniform, but also shots of him as a husband, a father, an ordinary guy. Importantly, Kezia told us, the carer has also left blank pages so that new photos can be glued in – not from Leo’s past but from his present and his future.
Just like the motorbike, Leo still retains the capability of action, of ‘effect’, his capacity for ‘feral days’ is not over, although it may have changed.
‘And so,’ Kezia concluded, ‘this sculpture, as it relates to my research on person-centred care, reminds us that there is movement in stillness. There is strength in fragility. There is growth in decline. From loss arises new meaning. And thus, although we may come to the end of our feral youth, we should be careful not to see that as the end of the road.’
I was waiting to speak after Kezia, and, as the enthusiastic clapping died away, I directed the audience to turn and look at the floor. For on it was spread the work of Andrea Mastrovito, entitled Exodus 8.13, and the subject of my paper. Although using simply cut paper as its medium, Exodus 8.13 is designed to elicit a series of complex responses from the viewer.
When I first saw the vast bed of exuberant flowers spread out on the floor of the gallery, my initial response was one of delight. Have they planted a bed of flowers actually inside this gallery? Ah no, of course, they are paper flowers.
But just after that initial response came another, more surprising, reaction. Fear. The flowers looked vulnerable, they had no protection from the feet of the gallery visitors; they were open to being examined, maybe picked over until they were destroyed. There was no sign advising us to be careful.
My area of research is into our public services, particularly health and education. The Consultants, Nurse Directors, GPs, Head Teachers and Senior Lecturers whom I have interviewed tell me of their fear – their uneasiness – that our services may be ‘viewed’ and ‘picked over’ until they no longer exist in any form that we will recognize.
Just as the paper frogs eat the paper flowers in the Pharaoh’s garden of Exodus 8.13, so practitioners fear that the very ethos of public service is being eaten away. League tables in schools and time targets for GPs may have unintended consequences. Our expert practitioners, who have always been keen to measure their own performance, are afraid that they are now being asked to tick the wrong boxes.
If, as a visitor to the gallery, you bend down to examine the ‘garden’ more closely, you will see that that it isn’t made of carefully crafted, hand painted flowers, as you might expect, but its illusion of bounty is taken from cheap, mass produced catalogues. Advertising made to entice us to believe that the glossy blossoms can be ours. This ironic twist in the art work echoes the comments of our doctors, nurses and teachers who tell me that glossy brochures may reflect the commodification of healing and learning in our society rather than tell the truth about the ‘products’ on offer.
However, as I walked away from the ‘flowers’ on that first day, I realized that they still made a splash of thrilling, uplifting colour. The flowers, whatever connotations they carry, create a real sense of joy – just as inspirational and compassionate practitioners in heath and education still manage to offer good care and teaching, to the benefit of us all.
Kezia and I enjoyed the time we spent with the Djanogly Gallery. For both of us, there seemed to be an immediately ‘good fit’ between our research and the works we chose. It was something we both wanted to explore. In a broad sense, both art and healing deal with the human condition and in various ways, creative work and mental health have always been inextricably linked. As Mark Rawlinson told us on our first training session, ‘This is a great way of thinking about making your work accessible to different audiences. Of connecting. And, what’s more, it’s fun!’
And it was.
PhD Research Student
Department of Education
University of Nottingham