Subject/Object: Seeking the Self

Catalogue essay for Reassembling the Self

Julia Beaumont-Jones

Reassembling the Self
Hatton Gallery and Vane
20 September – 24 November 2012

The uneasiness experienced by patients on seeing their internal organs – in X-rays, ultrasounds, scans – has been well-documented.[i] We may feel familiar, comfortable even, with our everyday physiological processes and sensations, but the actual sight of our insides raises difficult questions, focusing our attention on the mysterious relationship between mind and body and making us wonder just who – or what – we are.

In 1999 Susan Aldworth’s health forced her urgently to such a question. Admitted to hospital with a suspected brain haemorrhage, she underwent a diagnostic angiogram in which the blood vessels in her brain were illuminated to reveal potential injury. As she began to think about her condition, watching in real time the workings of her brain on a monitor, Aldworth observed those very thoughts displayed as visual analogues. The brain scan, more than any other internal imaging, served as a compelling medical portrait of herself. The organ responsible for thought, speech, memory and behaviour was itself revealed as a functioning life force. It immediately became the subject of her work, which initially comprised paintings, collages, etchings and collagraphs in which the photographic source imagery of the scan combined with autographic mark-making to form a medical and emotional visualisation of the self – the objective and subjective articulated in concert.

Aldworth’s work establishes a dialogue between science and human experience, making medical discourses germane for the ‘lay person’, and at the same time acquainting the ‘medical world’ with imagery more emotionally responsive than the unmediated scan as diagnostic tool. The wider cultural resonance of the brain–mind relationship has been explored through a series of collaborations with patients and neuroscientists, stimulating debate and reflection from a range of perspectives. Aldworth’s latest residency at Newcastle University’s Institute of Neuroscience has involved working with two artists with schizophrenia, Camille and Kevin, whom she met twice a month to learn about life with the illness and their thoughts about identity. She quickly abandoned her original intention of making representational portraits of them, for she immediately appreciated that Camille and Kevin’s own artwork said more about their personal experiences of schizophrenia than she ever could. As a result her work takes a different approach. These are not portraits of schizophrenics. Rather, they are portraits of schizophrenia, and they invite us to consider how contemporary art treats the broad subject of mental illness.

Portraiture of the mentally ill before the twentieth century used a visual language that ranged from diagnostic images and crude psychiatric typologies, against which Théodore Géricault’s (1791-1824) nuanced portraits of ‘monomaniacs’ from Paris’s Salpêtrière Hospital seem like a protest, to the taxonomies of facial expression employed by the Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), the exaggerated, sometimes tortured posture of whose self-portrait ‘character heads’ were once understood to testify to his schizophrenia.[ii] But whether such external signs and symbols could ever reliably capture the reality of a subject’s inner psychopathology remained moot. From around the 1900s, however, the terms in which this question was addressed began to change fundamentally. We can point to several main developments.

First, modernism and psychoanalysis provided new tools with which to explore the human condition, as surrealism and abstract expressionism reflected the work of Freud and Jung. Then the formation of Jean Dubuffet’s art brutmovement and a new critical appraisal of ‘outsider art’ – made by psychiatric patients outside any artistic school – attempted to rewrite western definitions of ‘art’ by endorsing naïve invention, unfettered by convention and theory, for its raw purity of imagination.[iii] Thus mental illness, and schizophrenia in particular, became defining metaphors for the creative mind as it traversed fantasy and reality.[iv] That outsider and mainstream art shared a common, broad vocabulary was evident in the work of modern artists; here was testimony not only to the dialogue between them, but to the experiential affinities between all image makers. With the breakdown in representational hierarchies, postmodernism has further extended art’s expressive possibilities by validating imagery from all areas of culture. High and low meet in the gallery; science has been invited into the studio, as the studio has been welcomed to the lab. And from a different source the rise of art therapy for psychiatric patients has at the same time produced a uniquely informed body of work whose response to the experience of mental illness is distinctive, intimate and resonant, and has helped enlarge our understanding of it. Today, then, the work of trained artists, medical professionals and patients coexists and interweaves in a complex cultural discourse on the human condition ­– a condition in which psychiatric disorder is no longer marginalised.

It is in this context that we can now consider Aldworth’s works in this exhibition. Clearly they do not perform the traditional function of portraiture – they bear no likeness of the sitter as seen through the eyes of another. External appearance as an indicator of inner life is disrupted and anonymised, and Aldworth also eschews the brain scan – the ‘physiognomy turned inward’ – as she side-steps her familiar terrain of ‘bio-art’.[v] No physical part of the individual is used as a personal signifier. Camille and Kevin’s own experiences have informed the development of the work, but so too have other narratives – personal, medical, neuroscientific, cultural – from Aldworth’s wider research, as well as discussions with neuroscientists from the University of Newcastle, Dr Fiona Le Beau and Professor Miles Whittington.

Aldworth’s response to her subject is bold and disarming. With the exception of the text pieces Dreaming Voices 1and 2, which draw directly on the spoken words of Camille and Kevin, the works contain no discernible biographical elements; instead they reflect on the general condition of schizophrenia. As anti-portraits, their use of found imagery – generic anatomical prints from medical folios, the ear as a visual shorthand for schizophrenia and hearing voices – at once interrogates individual identity and situates individual consciousness within a provocatively depersonalized symbolism. These powerful, graphical emblems act as cognitive short-cuts in the construction of a collective experience whose condition we are invited to reassemble. They ask: What is schizophrenia? Is it situated in the brain? What does it tell us about ourselves?

The wholesale exclusion of her subject’s own imaged body is a radical departure in Aldworth’s work, and a brilliant conceit which further complicates the mind/body problem of locating the self. Where is the self in secondary-source pictures of the body? Where is the human experience situated in these diagrammatic images? In Reassembling the Self 16 and Dreaming Voices 3–5, the pre-imaged skeleton and organs are used to suggest life with schizophrenia. It is through their manipulation, in various arrangements and reworkings, that we find the personal within the ostensibly prosaic. Collaged imagery of body parts, anatomically distorted in various configurations, disrupts the coherence of the objectified body. It is jumbled up and wired differently to standard anatomical mappings – ears, scaled up, are given prominence, hands emerge from intestines, the pelvis stands in for a shoulder. The rearranged, distorted textbook imagery reveals a world turned upside down, symbolising altered perceptions of the self and social environment; and at the same time asserts that the self is ‘the objectified’, that one’s view is mediated by the views of others in society, and by one’s awareness of individual differences. For as Aldworth discovered from her subjects, inhabiting the same physical space as others while being in a discrete ‘zone’ of one’s own makes for an uncertain, fractured self-image: identity is a fragile thing.

Photomechanical forms, emerging from dark ink, are heightened with autographic painterly gestures to emphasise the dynamic between the personal and impersonal, the mind and the corporeal machine. In Dreaming Voices 3 and 4, emphatic hand-rendered white flourishes around the skull and ears suggest activity against static bones and organs; these dazzling ‘electrical charges’ from the brain assert the persistence and power of the mind – that is, the restless mind which hears voices and sees deities, which has its own beauty and intensity. These works suggest a spiritual quality in schizophrenia: as Camille describes it,

With visual things anything natural looks amazing. I see light energy – I can see guardian angels… It is very comforting, very vivid. I can’t remember what it was like before, but I wouldn’t want these guardian angels to fade away. I believe it is a gift.

Aldworth’s language for representing these conditions is harnessed perfectly by lithography – a medium which can deftly reproduce photographic imagery amid the most nuanced or expressive autographic marks, viscerally recreating every brushstroke, flick of ink or fingerprint. It is no coincidence that her treatment of this subject was realised in a new medium: breaking with the nebulous undulations of line and tone of her ethereal etchings and aquatints, she has opted with lithography for a more concrete language that references the dramatic chiaroscuro of oil painting and the mass-produced poster to describe the dynamic between self and ‘other’. Extremes of light and dark, reminiscent of X-ray imaging, heighten our sense of the isolated self, as forms emerge from an opaque, mysterious void. Reassembling the Self 1 and 2, according to Aldworth, ‘could only be lithographs. Their success depends on the intense black of the background – black that you want to dive in to, the black of oblivion’.

At the Curwen Studio, where she was installed for two months in the autumn of 2011, the lithographs were realised in close collaboration with master-printer Stanley Jones, whose five decades of working with artists there afforded an intuitive understanding of the direction Aldworth wished to take in her new medium. The subject reminded Jones of the collage transfer lithographs of Jean Dubuffet, which he had first encountered as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art and then as an apprentice printer in Paris. Dubuffet’s methods seemed to Jones to connect with what Aldworth might explore in her work. But while Dubuffet’s transfer lithographs relied solely on autographic, painterly mark-making in the impulsive vein of art brut, Aldworth’s ability to combine pre-imaged and hand-rendered forms afforded her freedom to explore the schizophrenic self and its idiosyncratic positioning amid societal norms.

A key decision was to use fine-grain drafting film, which enabled the collaging of photographic with hand-drawn images and provided scope for alteration as Aldworth experimented compositionally. The medical textbook imagery was already sourced and conceived as a contrast to her mark-making, but there was no plan at the outset for precisely how the two elements would interact or indeed what the prints would look like. Rather, Jones encouraged such decisions to emerge within the studio process: his intention was for Aldworth to develop an intimate understanding of the medium – for her to test its range of expressive possibilities as a means of honing her language for the subject-matter.

In addition to their continuous experimentation and serendipitous discoveries, the proofing stages were important opportunities at which to reconsider the direction of Aldworth’s language, revisiting the quality of inking, density of colour and the order in which colour layers were printed to achieve desired effects. Some of the results can be seen in the dark backgrounds of Reassembling the Self 1, 2, 5 and 6 and Dreaming Voices 3 and 4, which in addition to the use of black, combine layers of inky blues and purples.

I can still remember every discussion Stanley and I had about colour and tone… Reassembling the Self 6was a particular challenge. I thought we needed black in the background, but when we proofed the work it was too severe. Stanley suggested mauve, a colour I never use. He was of course right: he is the consummate colourist.

Nature Nurture 1 and 2, and Reassembling the Self 7 mark a return to self-portraiture as Aldworth examines with a new language subjects she has explored in etching – namely, the fundamental problem of reconciling the mind/body paradox. Juxtaposing photographs from different ‘epochs’ in her life with medical scans and textbook imagery, these lithographs exhibit a boldness unmatched by intaglio printing: they are unmistakably graphic art. The Nature Nurtureworks emulate posters which, like most mass-published imagery, employ offset lithography. The simplicity of the utilitarian form, apparently devoid of artistic artifice, is emphasised by the choice of local colour printed in just two separations – anatomical illustrations in cyan ink, as if applied straight from the bottle, are overlaid onto a brown ‘patterning’ of tendrils suggestive of nervous activity. The scale of these works helps emphasise the dynamic between personal and impersonal, for while the found medical images are typically printed to a size that dominates the composition, Aldworth’s personal photographs retain their original small format, quietly evoking a sense of loss as ephemeral ‘human’ elements under threat from the spectral, mutable body, surviving only in the memories of others.

Reassembling the Self 7 also references the personal photograph, but rather than emulating the modern poster it looks back in time to early anatomical study in Europe. Its composition and surface texture are modelled on the Evelyn Tables, four anatomical preparations on wood originally used in the University of Padua’s anatomy theatre during the 1650s and now on display in London’s Hunterian Museum. An impression of wood is given by lithographic crayon frottage, while the depicted body, scaled to life size as two composite prints, emulates the veins, arteries and nerves as glued and varnished onto the original tables. Aldworth’s reference to these anatomical models, originally used for teaching purposes, is a potent symbol of the objectified body of the medical profession in contrast to the subjective embodiment we each experience. Presented horizontally in its vitrine, the work invites us to view it as anatomists of the artist, poring over her constituent parts in search of an answer to the question: ‘where is the self in here?’

Aldworth’s extraordinary body of work gives no definitive answer. But her lithographs do insist on the power of our uncompromising physiologies to shape the lives we lead, the ways we see ourselves and interpret the world. Her Janus-like imagery is both bold and direct, esoteric and uncertain. It respects the fragility of identity at the centre of the mind/body relationship, and the questions it asks – of who we might be and of what we are made – involve us in a debate as old and elemental as consciousness itself.

[i]      Sawday J., The Body Emblazoned: Dissection of the Human Body in Renaissance Culture, London: Routledge, 1995, p.7; Slatman, J., Exploring Bodily Integrity on the Basis of Patients’ Narratives, conference poster, Prague: EACME, September 2008; van de Val, R., ‘Introduction’, in van de Val, R. and Zwijenberg, R. (eds.), The Body Within: Art, Medicine and Visualisation, Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2009, pp.2–5; Zwijnenberg, R., ‘A Short History of the Imagination and Human Interiority’, in Fortunati, V. et al (eds.) The Scientific Imaginary in Visual Culture, Gottingen: V&R Press, 2010, pp.30–32.

[ii]     See Bann, S., ‘Erased Physiognomy’, in Clarke, G. (ed.) The Portrait in Photography, London: Reaktion Books, 1992 and Kris, E., Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art, Connecticut: IUP, 1952.

[iii]    Cardinal, R., Outsider Art, London: Studio Vista, 1972.

[iv]    For instance, Herbert Read: ‘It is probably true to say that most artists are schizoid’. Read, H., Aspects of Schizophrenic Art: An Exhibition of Work by Patients of Mental Hospitals, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1955, p.1

[v]     Hagner, M., ‘The Mind at Work: The Visual Representation of Cerebral Processes’, in van de Val, R. and Zwijnenberg,R. (eds.), The Body Within: Art, Medicine and Visualisation, Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2009, p.86.

Julia Beaumont-Jones is the curator of the Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain.