Contemporary art is all around us, but we often still ask: “Is it art?” In the first of a new blog series exploring how and why we make art, Guillaume Vandame looks at sculpture in our Medicine Now gallery and beyond for Contemplating the Contemporary.
Contemporary art of the twenty-first century is driven in part by advancements and innovations in the practice of sculpture. In particular, artists are interested in using mixed media, found objects and ready-mades, triumphed by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Duchamp, and at the same time, developing highly sophisticated forms of fabrication, as exemplified by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami. These contemporary strategies to making sculpture are continued with some of the artists featured in the Medicine Now gallery. Click each image for more information.
We are fascinated by the photographs our visitors take of the objects and spaces within Wellcome Collection. Thanks to Instagram, we can not only see what’s eye catching but also how people view us and our material. Charlie Morgan and Russell Dornan explore one of the most photographed objects with a little help from the public.
Visitors who enter our gallery Medicine Now are unlikely to miss I can’t help the way I feel. The John Isaacs artwork is by far the biggest object in the space, but is also the most eye-catching. Initial responses regularly range from shock to horror and are often followed by an assumption that this must either be based upon a real person or instead be a warning of what could happen if obesity were left unchecked. However, the name of the piece indicates that Isaacs is putting across a far more nuanced point.
In the first case this could never be a real person. The wax sculpture may be in human form but it lacks arms, genitalia and a head: the last of which any human being would need to survive. But the lack of these parts also strips the figure of all identifying features and any kind of individuality. All that remains is an ever expanding mass of tumorous fat. As such, far from being a realistic representation of what someone could be, the piece is instead a depiction of how people could, and do, feel. I can’t help the way I feel reflects what Isaacs calls the ‘emotional landscape’ of someone who might glance in the mirror and see themselves in a certain way when in reality they look nothing of the sort. So it’s a piece about obesity, but it’s equally a piece about anorexia and about body dysmorphia; it’s about the personal implications of a society obsessed with an ‘obesity epidemic’ and with body image.
Of course, it’s also an outstanding work of art and a fantastic photo opportunity for Wellcome Collection visitors; it is one of our most photographed objects. Since the sculpture challenges its viewers to see things in new ways it lends itself to being scrutinised from many angles. En masse photos of the same object may force you to notice small details, look harder and generally see it differently. The photographs above are all from Instagram courtesy of the curious public. Click on the image to see the gallery in full and witness the different perspectives (as well as many similar ones) offered by visitors to the gallery. Next time you’re in Medicine Now why not take one yourself? Remember to tag it #WellcomeCollection or #wayIfeel if sharing on Instagram or Twitter and let us know how it makes you feel.
Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection.
For one year and one day, commencing on her 22nd birthday on 11 March 2001 and ending on her 23rd, Ellie Harrison photographed everything that she ate. The resulting film and book entitled Eat 22 can currently be seen in Medicine Now. Nearly 12 years after the project was completed, Charlie Morgan spoke to her for Object of the Month.
Ellie Harrison has always been interested in food. When she created Eat 22 it was the first of a wider series of ‘data collecting’ projects in which she painstakingly recorded details of her own life. In 2006 Ellie officially quit data collecting and instead of looking inwards at herself began to use art to look out at “what was going on in wider political and social systems”. Yet despite this she is still drawn back to food as a subject matter. In 2009 she produced Vending Machine, a normal machine reprogrammed to only release crisps when news of the recession came up on the BBC News RSS feed. Through projects like this she is attempting to create a “direct link between wider economic and political events and our food supply” and to examine “the absurd consequences of the capitalist system” of which “the obesity epidemic is one and climate change is another”. It was in the context of this change in approach that I spoke to Ellie about her enduring interest in food.
Charlie Morgan: In Medicine Now, Eat 22 is in a section about obesity, and I know obesity and our relationship to food is something you are interested in now. At the time did you actually think about it in those terms?
Ellie Harrison: No I wasn’t really; it’s funny actually because when I came to the launch at the Wellcome Collection in 2007 I just found it hilarious that my piece of work was right behind the John Isaacs thing. I had never really thought about that piece in relation to obesity, I don’t know whether I took offence at the fact that it had been bunged in the obesity section, I might have done actually at the time! But now I think it makes perfect sense, and actually I’ve just made a film for a project I did called The Other Forecast in which I’m wearing a fat suit because I’m talking about increased rates of obesity.
CM: One thing that I always find interesting is that when people read through the book of Eat 22 they are in a sense just looking at pictures of you eating food, but they also quickly learn quite a lot about where you’re studying, where your family live, where you work and so forth. You produced the book in a sort of diary format but what were your thoughts behind providing that additional information, did you ever think that someone could look through it and piece together bits of your life?
EH: I just wanted to be as thorough as possible when I was doing it, but I guess I always have a sick fantasy that people might look it and piece together bits of my life! I think everybody has that same sick fantasy now; everybody’s publishing information online, everybody sort of hopes that people will be interested in the minutiae of their everyday lives. But I think I was really unconscious of all of that when I was doing it because I was so young and it’s only in hindsight that I’ve thought more about the process of making this private information public and why you would want to do that. I’ve thought about what it might mean perhaps in terms of an attempt for some sort of immortality through documenting something that will live on longer than you do, I mean that’s probably one of the reasons why a lot of artists make work.
I never knew it was going to end up in the Wellcome Collection and I never knew it was going to make the impact that it did. It just seemed to strike a chord with people all over the world who were able to identify with it and it really sort of snowballed in terms of the press coverage that it got. It’s quite weird thinking back on it now because I was a different person then and when I look back at my life, yeah, you can extract all of that information about what I was like then, but I guess I’m quite different now.
CM: You’ve said now you think of yourself as quite young when you produced Eat 22, do you think it was a product of your age?
EH: It was definitely a product of my age but also of technology. I was at university and I learnt how to do basic web design, and also digital cameras were just being released around then. I got one of the earliest digital cameras which was a 0.8 megapixel camera and it seems really backward now, but if it hadn’t have been for those developments in technology I don’t think it would have been possible.
At the time I was a student learning about the internet and it just seemed such an amazing tool for an artist. It was really liberating to be able to communicate directly with an audience in a way that just wasn’t possible before. As an artist working in a more traditional field your fate is in the hands of exhibition curators, critics and others who choose what to show, and I just saw the internet as an amazing tool to bypass all of that, a really democratic way of getting information out.
I was really inspired by that and had all of those things not come together at the same point in my life then it may not have happened.
CM: Just going back to something that you mentioned before when you spoke about the interest in Eat 22 snowballing, did you ever get replies from people doing the same sort of project?
EH: A little bit, on the website there’s a links page to other projects that were happening around the same time. I became aware of other people who were doing similar things and I remember corresponding with quite a lot of them. We had a sort of shared experience because it does have such an impact on your life. It did dramatically change my eating habits and I felt really restricted all the time because I couldn’t go anywhere without the camera. People ask me if I ever cared about what I would eat because it would look bad and that wasn’t ever a concern. It was more a concern with the amount of work involved in processing all the images: that was the biggest thing that was likely to deter me from eating. Everything I ate was more work!
CM: The concerns you had (or didn’t have) lead on to comments we often hear in Medicine Now. Sometimes when people visit the gallery and read Eat 22 they can be quite judgemental about what you eat: the amount you eat, whether or not they think it’s healthy. At the time did you ever become judgemental about yourself?
EH: I never really thought about that at all. I went into it thinking that I could produce a realistic picture of everything that I’d eaten, but it did end up changing what I ate. I think I did have a worse diet then than I have now: because I was a dirty student for half of it! I was eating Pot Noodles, I was eating ice creams and packets of crisps and I never really eat stuff like that now. I think I had a faster metabolism back then!
CM: With regards to eating habits – and this is probably the question we get asked the most in Medicine Now – to what extent did Eat 22 affect your eating habits after the project had finished?
EH: Afterwards, because it was such a novelty to be free and not to be being watched the whole time, I did eat more than I should have done. I think it probably takes about a year to recover, to just go back to normal and to remember what normal is. I wouldn’t recommend it as a diet!
It is useful for creating awareness of what you’re eating and nutritionists do recommend food diaries. But I was reading a blog post today about fad diets and how you can get really into them and they can really work for a short space of time but then there’s always going to be a backlash when you stop, and I think it would be unsustainable to try to attempt to do something like that for ever. It’s always going to end somewhere and there’s always going to be some sort of backlash.
CM: Finally, how did people around you react? Did you end up damaging any friendships as a result of the project?
EH: Not really because it didn’t really impact on other people’s lives in such a massive way. My friends and family took some of the photos but I developed a way of taking a lot of the photos myself.
CM: The original selfies.
EH: Yeah, the original selfies exactly. I discovered that if I turned a pint glass upside down and then I balanced the camera on top of the pint glass I could take a picture of myself on the timer very easily. I probably did a lot more than half of them that way, so I think for everybody else involved it still remained a relative novelty.
Ellie Harrison is currently running the Bring Back British Rail campaign and working on a number of artistic projects. She can be contacted through her website.
Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.
For some, Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ; for others, it’s about eating as much food as possible. This month Charlie Morgan looks at a book that manages to combine both.
Among the many diet books in Medicine Now you can find one called Slim for Him. Often misconstrued as a 1950s ‘lose weight for your husband’ tract, the ‘Him’ of the title actually refers to God – and this is just one of a series of Christian diet books on display in the gallery. As the ever-expanding (no pun intended) weight loss industry collides with a history of religious dietary laws, publications such as God’s Answer to Fat and The Bible Diet (to name just two) are the inevitable result, but what do they actually say? More to the point, what can a religious diet offer that a secular one cannot? To find out, I decided to have a closer look at two of them.
Probably the most eye-catching Christian diet book in Medicine Now is the outrageously titled What Would Jesus Eat? The book starts with the proposition that ‘If you truly want to follow Jesus in every area of your life, you cannot ignore your eating habits,’ and as a Christian you would find it hard to disagree with that. It then proceeds to create a diet around what a historical Jesus Christ may have eaten at the start of the Common Era and, accordingly, the end result is far more archaeological than it is theological. Although recent studies have suggested that the Last Supper might have included delicacies such as grilled eels and orange slices, What Would Jesus Eat? sticks to a modern day ‘Mediterranean’ lifestyle and relies heavily on food such as pomegranates, fish and olive oil. Considering our traditional understandings of first century Galilean Jews, this is hardly surprising. Also unsurprising is the diet’s heavy reliance on bread.
Bread plays a large part in Christian doctrine, both literally and metaphorically. Jesus famously fed five thousand people with nothing but bread and fish, and modern Christians still regularly implore the Lord to ‘give us today our daily bread’. In What Would Jesus Eat? it’s a key foodstuff, and the author Don Colbert writes that not only did it have an ‘important role in the life and teachings of Jesus’ but also ‘Jesus knew that bread was the staple of man’s physical life’. Colbert is critical of some of today’s ‘baker’s loaves’ and suggests Jesus would have eaten something more similar to pitta bread, but overall he gives it positive coverage. When, however, we take a look at another book on display – God’s Diet – we begin to see an element of controversy.
God’s Diet is a very different book to What Would Jesus Eat? As opposed to taking its starting point as somewhere around the start of the Common Era, it goes much further back and bases its recommendations on which foods may or may not have been in the Garden of Eden. Clearly, this very problematic, but it immediately becomes more suspect when the author starts referring to the use of electric whisks and fridges – modern appliances that almost certainly would not have been in any sort of Garden of Eden. It also makes a number of historically incorrect assertions; for example, the book prominently claims that none of our ancestors ever died of clogged arteries, but recent excavations of mummies have revealed that they did indeed suffer from this exact ailment.
Returning to types of food, where God’s Diet notably differs from What Would Jesus Eat? is that it strictly prohibits the consumption of bread. The author states that ‘I bet [Adam and Eve] didn’t bake nicely crusted bread’ and on a list of ‘FOODS YOU CAN’T HAVE’ alongside candy, marshmallows and sweet pickles you can find, in capitalised letters, bread. In one quick move, bread has gone from being portrayed as a food that Jesus almost certainly ate (and so one that we definitely should) to one that Adam and Eve would never touch (and so one that we should also avoid). When one book asks ‘why not [follow Jesus] in our eating habits?’ and the other ‘why not eat just what God provided for us?’ yet neither can agree on where these intersect, the diet-conscious Christian is left in an awkward position.
Using just this one example, the upshot is that ultimately Christian diet books are as varied, confusing and dubious as their secular counterparts. Despite their apparent foundation in religious law, they appear to be much more a product of human desires than of divine rule. God’s Diet’s may continually repeat the mantra that ‘IF GOD DIDN’T MAKE IT, DON’T EAT IT’, but you have to wonder whether the author would still stick to this single rule if it could be somehow proven that Adam and Eve (and, of course, Lilith) ate Big Macs and Snickers Pie in the Garden of Eden. There is then little to suggest that those that live by Christian diet books are doing it for different reasons to those who adhere to Atkins or Cabbage Soup. Furthermore, there is even less to suggest that those writing them are basing them on anything other than widespread assumptions.
So our books might not reach the same conclusions on which diet works best but I think we can all agree that the holiday period really isn’t the time to be worrying about bread. Whatever Christmas means to you, make sure you enjoy some delicious food.
Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.
One of the overarching themes of our permanent gallery Medicine Now is the lived experience of illness. Juxtaposed with objects from clinical medicine, such as pills, anatomical models and teaching aids, are a broad selection of contemporary artworks that invite visitors to consider illness and disease from the viewpoint of patients…
Phantom limbs, colour blindness, dyslexia and multiple sclerosis: these are just some of the many conditions explored by artworks in Medicine Now. But of all the fascinating and thought-provoking pieces on display, by far the most imposing is ‘I Can’t Help the Way I Feel’, by the British artist John Isaacs. A huge, amorphous blob of realistic-looking human fat, complete with hideously swollen legs and blotchy, irritable sores, the sculpture is John Isaacs’ take on the ‘obesity epidemic’ sweeping the developed world, and the reductive, depersonalising dimensions of the worst of clinical medicine.
To say the artwork is huge is an understatement. When it was first installed, all the way back in 2007 when Wellcome Collection first opened its doors to the public (is it only four years ago?!), it was so big it couldn’t fit through the gallery doors, and our curatorial team had to winch it, angel-like, up through the space by the spiral staircase – a bizarre sight, if there ever was one. The artwork tells the story of obesity from the viewpoint of the patient. It represents a living person whose defining features, gender, personal story – in short, everything that makes them unique as an individual – has been systematically removed by an explosion of fat, engulfing the head, the arms, and everything in between. Cleverly sculpted from polystyrene and painted wax, it is so terrifyingly realistic that many visitors mistakenly believe it is a representation of a real-life person, or a very serious genetic disorder. Anything but – it represents plain and simple obesity, albeit obesity that has been taken to the extreme by John Isaacs.
The artwork has a serious point to make. Isaacs is interested in the lived experience of disease – the ‘emotional landscape’ of the individual – and its tense relationship with society. The sculpture doesn’t represent obesity in a real, physical sense, the kind of obesity that presents itself to clinicians or members of the public. It is a literal embodiment of obesity in a highly idealised, abstract form. It represents the feelings of those who live with and confront obesity, and how these feelings are defined in response to social ideals and expectations. It graphically represents what would happen if, somehow, these emotions were to manifest themselves physically, on the surface.
John Isaacs has thus privileged the subjective over the objective dimensions of obesity, and has helped redeem it from the reductive potential of clinical medicine, which, at its extreme, can reduce obesity to merely a set of symptoms, or another set of depressing statistics in the news. The thoughts, feelings and fears of those who live with obesity are often absent from such a presentation of obesity. At its worst, they are discounted altogether. It is easy to see why people can become defined, stigmatised, or even trapped by their condition, if the ways in which they can express their experiences and feelings are so heavily conditioned by the society in which they live – what Isaacs refers to as the ‘emotional landscape’. They really can’t help the way they feel. The most literal example I can think of is the stock footage of obesity you see on the news, when they are ‘objectively’ reporting on the latest comments made by a health expert. You almost never see faces, personal stories, or anything else that identify these people as individuals who are anything other than ‘obese’. All you see is beheaded waistlines and random flashes of disembodied mouths eating hamburgers. Sure, the news has a duty to respect the privacy of the people they are reporting on, which is why these faces are absent in the first place. But a consequence of this is that people become objectified, anonymised, and their personal circumstances and stories are pushed under the surface.
In recent years, campaigners such as Vicki Swinden, founder of the ‘Fat is the New Black’ campaign, have tried to reduce the level of stigma surrounding obesity by re-appropriating the label of ‘fat’ – transforming it, as it were, into a fashion label. The logic behind the campaign is that by giving people the freedom and confidence to express themselves, they are more likely to participate as active members of society, and be physically active as a result. In an age where two thirds of British adults are overweight and where almost a quarter are clinically obese, could it be the case that focussing on the subjective, emotive and psychological elements of obesity has genuine, positive public health benefits?