Rowan Walker at Summerhall, Edinburgh
Since the pandemic, the collective consciousness is undoubtedly more attuned to illness and, to a lesser extent, pain. This is not to say that this has led to a shift in empathy, as the optimistic among us would have predicted, but the visibility of people with different care needs has been amplified. Thus, in making art about pain, illness, and disease, there will never be motifs, aesthetics, or methods which are universally understood. This is at once immensely frustrating and exciting, as no two bodies feel things identically; something that makes perfect sense to one person will feel entirely abstract to another.
A recent trip to Scotland brought me to Summerhall in Edinburgh, a gentle walk away from the mayhem of the tourist centre of the city, on the site of an eighteenth-century brewery, hosting a surprising number of events and exhibitions. As part of a series of smaller exhibitions showcasing contemporary women sculptors, Rowan Walker's exhibition, Foreign Objects, explores pain in a compelling way, with nods to clinical imagery, the McGill Pain Questionnaire, and anecdotal insight, all the while resisting the parasocial temptation to impart personal information.
Summerhall's building is grandiose, but Walker's show is located in its basement, which is humble and has a somewhat eerie atmosphere, which sets the foundation for discussing pain, given that it is so often an unchartered, isolating territory. At no point in the exhibition does Walker disclose, nor allude to, the ailment(s) in question, but that is largely the point. The way pain is perceived, both socially and, unfortunately, medically, is almost entirely via the means of personal interpretation. When someone describes their symptoms, we have to relate to them somehow to respond accordingly. Dubious ethics, but this is seemingly how human brains are conditioned to respond to another's pain. (Check out my review of The Pain of Others at DOX in Prague from last year if this interests you.)
Foreign Objects is comprised of sculptures and an isolated video piece, It Feels as If, which sets the scene of producing feelings of discomfort, given that the viewing area is dark with exposed brickwork, again giving this sensation of an abandoned institution of some kind, whether that is a school, hospital, or another incarceration-lite system.
There is a way of thinking through art, via the means of art writing, criticism, discourse, whatever you want to call it, that is burdened with a framing of productivity, a sense of firm patriarchal, over-educated, institutionally-driven logic, that stands firmly in the face of feelings of illness and pain. Someone might be considered more equipped to write about exhibitions such as Foreign Objects if they have a certain level of qualifications on paper. I risk sabotaging myself and my own career by saying that this isn't especially true, particularly with the subject matter Walker deals with here. If you feel it, you can speak on it. Besides, the art writing game is tired, exhausted! I want to tune into how the works feel in relation to my own relationship with pain. Implementing the third-person, stubbornly "objective" narrative is okay if we want to keep churning out the same thing ad infinitum, but if this or that artwork is not moving us emotionally, there is no point. We can hand it to the collectors instead to wax lyrical, according to the art historical canon; fill your boots!
Back to Summerhall, and the fundamental un-naming of the illnesses in question are very much attuned to the ways in which women's pain is dealt with in healthcare settings. It is all a figment of our imagination, until it's too late. It Feels as If is an astute, almost tongue-in-cheek depiction of this, with the POV walking through a sterile, white corridor, reminiscent of a hospital. It's a hauntingly unknown space, yet heavy with anticipation. Is a jump scare round the corner? As we turn into respective rooms adjoined to the corridor, vague and varying degrees of horror await; one holds a cactus on fire, and another has a bathtub with scurrying insects scuttling outwards, out of the frame, towards the viewer. According to the artist, these are all abstract depictions of her own pain, cleverly non-verbal and unexpected from a clinical perspective, and certainly in stark contrast to the McGill Pain Questionnaire used by medical professionals as a tool to diagnose patients. We are all expected to communicate and express ourselves identically, otherwise we miss out on necessary diagnoses.
Sculpture works fit nicely as a follow-up from the video piece, as they are curated within stark white spaces. The blue palette that runs through the sculptures is also deeply satisfying, despite its allusions to hospital curtains, latex gloves and drip bags. This, more than any feeble political rhetoric, bizarrely lets the viewer know that we are all in this together, after all. These spaces of distress, illness, disorder are spaces that we move in and out our whole lives, to various degrees. As Susan Sontag said in the opening of her 1978 text Illness as Metaphor,
"illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place."
The Battle of Hygeia is a powerful sculpture that presents an object of recognition as its starting point. In doing so, there is some light humour involved, which is an impressive move in the world of pain and illness. Walker says that the work "began as a mental translation from a physical feeling into a visual object", and can anyone really argue with the visual motif of a grater? It's essentially the thing of nightmares. Similarly, Fallibility II, hung daintily at the back of the first space, dangles like a fleshy flag, perhaps a symbol of patriotism to Sontag's Kingdom of the Sick. A lingering effect of Walker's work is the recognition of how our minds work so differently. This is not exclusively in terms of ability/disability, neurotypicality/neurodiversity binaries, but in questioning who really understands our pain, and who wants to? The way a medical doctor might want to use the McGill questionnaire to determine pain, many others like Walker will use the process of sculpture, or another art form, to describe the sensations in their bodies, and although only one of these two forms of expression are institutionally legitimised, ultimately how we choose to express ourselves becomes a tangled, melting pot language. In an age of such devastating, violent division, will we ever fully understand each other?