What has art got to do with disability?
In the summer of 2010 I participated in a juried exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, called Revealing Culture. 55 artists were selected from an international entry of 400, five of us were British.
This year (2011) I am working on a research project called Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility supported by the Arts Council England. One of my aims is to share the work I saw in Washington with the widest possible audience.
Sunaura Taylor, Chicken Truck (detail), 2007
The exhibition was organised by VSA - The International Organisation on Arts and Disability, America’s largest organisation supporting art and disability.
The Revealing Culture exhibition website showcases an extensive range of art practice: painting, knitted sculpture, film, photography, installation, printmaking and much more.
This richness and breadth made the exhibition a pleasure to explore, but also poses questions: why show such art together? What, artistically, connects such diverse artists? Or to put it more crudely, what has disability got to do with art?
If you know nothing about disability arts, please keep reading, and put aside all ideas of social worthiness or equality and diversity. I want to explain how the experience of disability informs and nourishes the work of artists and in doing so, touches on universal themes.
I aim to demonstrate that the big existential themes, such as life, death and our relationship with reality, although absent from funding form tickboxes, are present here, in the art work of the artists in Revealing Culture. And this gives the work a power and intensity.
So how does disability relate to art and artists’ work? There are so many answers to this question. I will start with my own art work first and then move on to the work of other artists which reveals other answers to this question.
Artists and their work
My installation at Revealing Culture included ‘Wedding Shoes’, a pair of paper shoes made from fragmented drawings, and ‘Ghost Shoes’ a digital print on the cusp of visibility showing the back view of the shoes.
The photograph opposite shows a row of fragmented paper vessels (gravy boat, teacup etc.) which are formed from torn and reconnected digital prints. Black ink has bled into white paper.
They come from a series called ‘Genteel Noir’, inspired by the delicate tableware in a Hitchcock film noir. So on one level this work is about innocence and menace, but there are many other layers.
Anne TeahanGenteel Noir (gravy boat, tea caddy, goblet, teacup), 2010
Anne TeahanGenteel Noir Teacup (above), 2006
'... on one level this work is about innocence and menace, but there are many other layers...Ten years ago my voice collapsed, the attempted repair of a torn voice [and] associated experiences are analogous to paper fragmentation and a fragile process of reconstruction.'
Ten years ago my voice collapsed with the onset of Laryngeal Dystonia followed by an energy-sapping condition. The attempted repair of a torn voice has become a long project. The associated experiences, both medical and societal, are analogous to paper fragmentation and a fragile process of reconstruction.
So for me, disability is embedded in my working process. It is a subtext which has influenced the form and material nature of my art.
Disability in the foreground
Liz Crow’s stark and beautiful installation ‘Resistance’ tackles disability and history directly.
In 1939, the first Nazi euthanasia programme was set in motion. Called Aktion-T4, it targeted the disabled in institutions and is the setting for Liz Crow’s harrowing 12 minute film.
Her narrative deals with an individual response to real events and explores themes of concealment, complicity and desperation.
When I saw the film part of ‘Resistance’ in Washington, I realised that this was the first time a Holocaust event has been shown through a disability lens. The collusion of the medical profession has been well documented, but not from the viewpoint of their targeted victims.
In the film ‘Resistance: Conversation’ disabled actors discuss their roles in ‘Resistance’ and their feelings on visiting the historical location of the story. These two films, shown together in Revealing Culture, are part of a larger installation.
Located in the past, they feel completely connected to the here and now. The actors prompt questions about the value of life and mainstream perceptions of disability.
For Washington-based artist Michelle Herman, disability acts as a creative inspiration and professional drive. And it also inspires a fascination with the role of ‘chance’ in life. Her installation in Revealing Culture is a hybrid art and science laboratory called 'A.R.T. Applied Research & Technology'.
She describes how it works:
‘A little room in dim light has a table with colourful specimens and test-tubes which are glowing.
Projections are showing abstract forms on the walls to the sides and in front of the installation. These are moving images. They show ink drops hitting water, and spreading and dividing into smaller droplets. They look like bacteria growing.
On the central wall the black and white image which looks like a crescent moon, is really a magnification of the centre of an eye. When a visitor looks into a microscope on the table near the test-tubes a tiny video camera projects the image of their eye onto the wall above the table’
(Michelle Lisa Herman)
Michelle Lisa Herman, A.R.T. Applied Research & Technology installation, 2008 - 2010
When I interviewed Michelle in Washington, she talked about EEC (Ectrodactyl Ectodermal Dysplasia & Cleft Palate Syndrome) a systemic condition she has managed since birth. EEC is the result of a rare genetic mutation.
For Michelle, a chance cellular event has determined the shape of her life and her art. Her installation draws parallels between the behaviour of ink droplets and bacterial growth. This is drip-painting with an added dimension.
So Michelle’s artistic take on the role of chance has a profound resonance that other artists may lack. Action painters, playing with chance and paint manipulation, may not see their own existence so lucidly reflected in their practice.
Michelle Lisa Herman, A.R.T. Applied Research & Technology installation (detail), 2008 - 2010
'For Michelle, a chance cellular event has determined the shape of her life and her art.'
In the mainstream discussion of art and culture, the idea of pushing or challenging boundaries has become a contemporary-art cliché.
For work to be exciting it must be innovative, edgy, liminal, or at the very least ‘subversive’ of some invisible oppressive barrier. And these terms of daring and adventure are most often applied to artists placed squarely and safely in the centre of the art market.
For artists with disabilities, every day, hour or moment may involve tackling obstacles, pushing against physical and social boundaries, challenging clichéd notions about ‘normality’ and refusing to accept the position of outsider looking in.
For some of the artists in Revealing Culture a relationship with boundaries, restrictions, demarcations, externally-imposed limitations, and space has become the stuff of their work.
California based artist Sunaura Taylor’s oil painting feels like a study of spatial confinement and restriction. Her large and lavishly painted ‘Chicken Truck’ shows rows and columns of boxed in hens, seen from the back of a truck against pitch black space.
Each small unit is treated with close and individual attention, and yet all the elements add up to a bold image of mass-confinement.
This is her catalogue statement:
‘I do everything with my mouth – I cook, clean, kiss, sing, carry and paint through my teeth, jaw tongue, and lips…. and my mouth is very close to my eyes.’
Sunaura Taylor, Chicken Truck, 2007
Oil paint is a very pressure sensitive medium. Close to the surface ‘Chicken Truck’ has a rich, tactile quality; and yet it also succeeds in dominating the gallery wall and surrounding space.
Moving through space
Space, and a truly innovative approach to movement is a theme common to two other artists in Revealing Culture Bill Shannon and Simon McKeown.
Bill Shannon, based in Pittsburgh, aka the ‘Crutchmaster’ turns his disability into a dynamic form of locomotion. In ‘Bench’ his 2 and a half minute film, the screen divides into multiple sections, each one tracking a precarious journey through urban spaces on crutches.
Throughout his work he treats roads, kerbs, sidewalks and stairwells as opportunities for turning movement into an urban art-form merging dance and athletics.
I asked him how disability relates to his work. He said ‘it limits my work in physical ways while simultaneously opening up new physical directions.’ For him, crutches are an opportunity for experimentation with space.
In his award-winning film ‘Motion Disabled’ British artist Simon McKeown animates individual solutions to everyday manoeuvres and rituals such as taking a shower or using a wheelchair.
His film is set against clear, white digital space. The practical props and tools of daily life fade in and out of view like ghost objects, while the viewer focuses on the subtle movements of the body in motion.
It feels multi-layered: it could be a study in human ingenuity and problem-solving, or a film about the poetics of movement through space.
So what has disability got to do with art?
Well everything really. If the best art makes sense of life and human experience, then it’s all here; sometimes as the invisible grit in the oyster, sometimes as a declaration about the frustrations and fascinations of the human condition.
If you want to look at life through another lens, follow the links below.
©Anne Teahan February 2011
See the films that were shown at Revealing Culture: www.vsarts.org/PreBuilt/showcase/gallery/exhibits/culture/exhibition.html
Anne Teahan on Axis
Anne Teahan's blog on Disability Arts Online
Michelle Lisa Herman: michellelisaherman.com
Sunaura Taylor sunaurataylor.org
Liz Crow (currently touring Resistence) roaring-girl.com
Simon McKeown simon-mckeown.com
Simon McKeown's Motion Disabled motiondisabled.com
Bill Shannon whatiswhat.com