Contemporary art is all around us, but we often still ask: “Is it art?” In this blog series exploring how and why we make art, Guillaume Vandame looks at photography in our Medicine Now gallery and beyond for Contemplating the Contemporary.
Our Medicine Now gallery features a diverse range of photography, ranging from documentary photography to more conceptual photographic projects. From full-colour to black-and-white, abstraction and figuration, the selection of photographs highlight some of the trends in contemporary photography today. In addition, one of the unique characteristics defining the photographs in the gallery is the fact that many of these projects come from collaborations between artists and medical practitioners.
At the beginning of the millennium, Andrea Duncan collaborated with medical professionals and patients while on a residency with the Department of Haematology at King’s College Hospital, London. The clinic is especially involved with haematologic cancers such as leukaemia and other blood disorders. Duncan became very interested in issues of language and translation; how the terminology of medical conditions is communicated between doctors and their patients.
Much of her artistic output demonstrated her concerns with language through a conceptual framework. Her full-colour photograph, Twenty Three Pairs (2002) presents twenty-three unique pairs of socks. The presentation is a classical format known as a karyotype, illustrating the number of chromosomes in a eukaryotic cell or the complete set of chromosomes in an organism. The choice of socks is popular among biology classes in order to teach genetic reproduction and genetic disorders, as well as to demonstrate how individuals are also defined and influenced by their cultural surroundings and other external factors.
In contrast to Duncan’s photograph of socks as a metaphor for the construction of identity, Pat York is interested in ideas of celebrity and what lies beneath the skin of every human through her anatomical photographs. York started her career for Vogue and Glamour magazines and subsequently learned photography under David Bailey while on an assignment in Japan in the 1960s. While working as a travel editor, she photographed Robert and Ted Kennedy, Marlon Brando, Raquel Welch, Michael Caine and Michael York (whom she married in 1968).
In the 1990s and early 2000s, in the spirit of photographers such as Bailey and Robert Mapplethorpe, York photographed nude bodies of everyday people in unexpected situations – a plumber fixing a sink or a musician with his guitar – as well as cadavers of bodies, forming the series, “Unmasked.” She collaborated with Dr. Mark Pick, a chiropractic neurologist, to photograph dissections of the body up close in black-and-white. One such photograph, Neural Nexus (2001) shows the human brain, spinal cord and nerve endings – a raw and visceral depiction of the body, delicate and beautiful, almost abstract, in grayscale. Juxtaposed with Osi Audu’s The Seeing Mind (2002), when stripped of human flesh, the works suggest how humans are all the same regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or race.
Body image, perception and difference on display are also a key focus of contemporary photography with the British artist, Alexa Wright. Like other contemporary British photographers, such as Martin Parr, Gillian Wearing and Sarah Lucas, who provide insight into British culture through their art, Wright produced a series of poignant portraits depicting the lives of individuals with phantom limbs (amputated or missing limbs).
Similar to Duncan and York, Wright collaborated with medical professionals, including neurologist John Kew and neuropsychologist Professor Peter Halligan, to conduct further research into people with amputated limbs. The series, titled After Image, presents eight different people at home; the photographs are usually juxtaposed with a text from an interview with the individual describing their personal experience of having a phantom limb.
Featured in Medicine Now, Wright’s After Image (1997) shows an unknown woman, then aged 35, who was involved in a road accident and had her hand amputated. The image itself is a well-balanced composition, marked by varied textures and vivid colours. In the centre, the woman sits; her blond hair smooth and shiny at her shoulders and her pale blue eyes looking directly at the viewer as she smiles. Her giant pale blue chair is like a throne and contrasts nicely with her rich orange-red to yellow stripe shirt, dark grey skirt, camel shoes, as well as the richly patterned, ornate carpet, wallpaper and the smooth, polished table in the corner of the room and the wooden door to the left corner of the room.
By having her sit with such elegance and poise, the woman appears to be regal and her smile disarms the fact that her hand is replaced by an artificial limb. Compositionally, one can also be reminded of the grand portraits by artists such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough or Cezanne, which Wright wholeheartedly subverts, as well as unconventional photographs representing otherness, especially of the female body, by Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin. Thus, by conflating these ideas of high and low culture, Wright questions current values and tastes of beauty and ugliness, as well as challenging collective ideas of normality through difference.
Outside of Medicine Now, some of these themes and techniques continue to be explored in some of the other galleries, including the erstwhile Institute of Sexology (which included photographs by Timothy Archibald and Zanele Muholi) and Medicine Man, which showcases modern photography by Edward S. Curtis, Alfred Duggan-Cronin, John Thomson and Eadweard Muybridge. In addition, one can learn more about our expansive collection of historical and contemporary photography on Wellcome Images.
Guillaume is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.