Art that brings meaning to medicine

Visiting Zhang Yanzi’s A Quest for Healing at Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh, for New Scientist, 31 May 2018.

Scar is mounted on the wall of a small, brand-new gallery space in Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Museums. Because of the way the room is laid out, this is probably the last piece you will come to. And that’s good, as Scar offers the perfect coda to Zhang Yanzi’s solo show A Quest for Healing.

Scar is modelled on a surgical bed Zhang spotted at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences. (The building itself was where treatments were developed for the bubonic plague, which raged in Hong Kong even into the 20th century.) It’s a violent and terrible cruciform structure, wrapped in bloody bandages – or at least, that’s my first impression. I step closer: the “blood” is ink made of cinnabar, a vermilion-red pigment traditionally used in Chinese painting. Zhang, one of China’s foremost contemporary artists, is no stranger to traditional techniques; much of her work has its roots in the artistic and poetic depictions of landscape known as Shan shui

And those “bloody” smears and stains turn out to be exquisitely detailed miniature scenes of flowing water, framed by “hillsides” of calligraphy, combining poetry with Zhang’s private thoughts. What at a distance seemed to be a work about violent medical intervention, becomes, closer in, to be something deeply personal, calming – even kind.

The stereotypical view of contemporary art is that it’s too clever for its own good and heartless with it, constantly tripping the unwary viewer into moments of horrified realisation (ever looked closely at a Grayson Perry pot?) Zhang’s work pushes in the opposite direction. In the centre of the gallery, an outsize felt-covered “broken heart”  is pierced with thousands of acupuncture needles. This is shocking enough, but only until the eye adjusts and you realise that those pins – so fine, and so many – are more likely cushioning the heart from further assault.

A Quest for Healing is not a sentimental show. Several pieces convey a powerful sense of human fragility. The most colourful piece here is also the most daunting: a wall-mounted pyramid of medical blister packs, their pills removed and replaced by strips of paper on which schoolchildren – thousands of them – have inscribed their prayers and wishes for the future. The weight of expectation borne by Wishing Capsules (pictured above) feels positively oppressive.

Then there are the linked drawings of Limitless, filling one wall with exquisitely drawn ants – half living things, half calligraphy, massing like clouds of stars. You can’t separate these tiny figures from each other, but then again,  you can’t write the whole lot off as a mere texture, either.

There’s a clever perspectival game being played in this show: our cosmic insignificance is a given, but our complexity demands that we press ourselves against each other, in an effort to understand.

Artists who dabble in medicine are a dime a dozen. Zhang is different. She’s steeped in this imagery, growing up in Jiangsu Province in the 1970s, playing with her doctor father’s stethoscope. While by no means rejecting Western medicine, Zhang makes us aware how much more effectively the Chinese tradition gets us to think about mortality, and time, and the nature of being a material body: yearning, growing, dying. And the work that results from all this? A Quest for Healing is, simply, the most humane art about medicine I have seen in years.

Bloody marvellous

Visiting the exhibition Blood: Life Uncut at Copeland Gallery, London, for New Scientist, 20 October 2017

It caused a storm on social media when it was first shown in 2013, but Dan Glaser, director of Science Gallery London, has a deep and obvious affection for Casting Off My Womb, a scarf knitted over the course of a month by Australian artist Casey Jenkins using spools of yarn stored daily in her vagina. The scarf hangs across the gallery hosting Blood: Life uncut as a visceral and compellingly complex record of one woman’s menstrual cycle. “How else could you ever present that much data?” Glaser enthuses.

“Data” is one of Glaser’s watchwords. So is “visualisation”. He claims not to know much about art. It’s a pose, of course, but a useful one. After 15 years as a research neurologist, Glaser has reinvented himself as an impresario of science communication. His approach is bold: to wrest the gallery space off the art world and apply it to his own, very different ends.

This is the latest in a series of small, off-site exhibitions, and it’s in an out-of-the-way former industrial space in Peckham, south London, because the actual Science Gallery London building won’t be ready until next year.

Everything on show is meant to illustrate medical and scientific ideas. This is why they are here: they are only coincidentally works of performance art, or conceptual art, or what have you.

Normally, this approach encourages dull, derivative work. And if Glaser and his colleagues were as naive as they like to make out, that’s no doubt what we would have got. But the works here, including many new commissions, are often beautiful, and always visually arresting.

Inspired by research into sickle cell anaemia conducted at King’s College London (the gallery’s owner), Glaser and the show’s curator, Andy Franzkowiak, have assembled an exhibition that can be read both for its beauty and for its scientific pertinence.

Given the show quite literally drips with the red stuff, it is still capable of surprising subtlety. Turn from the mechanical behemoth perfusing a bucket’s worth of pigs’ blood in Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor’s installation The Body is a Big Place, and you confront a video filmed in the waters of a municipal swimming pool.

Those people clinging to the sides are organ donors, potential recipients and their families. They are each of them out of their depth in an alien environment, seen through a medium and at an angle that makes identities impossible to establish. If you want an image of what it is like to be caught at the end of your tether in the toils of a necessarily complex and bureaucratic system – well, this video is surely it.

Some of the best pieces here are the most direct. In a riposte to the usual cock-and-balls graffiti found in public toilets, the Hotham Street Ladies have decorated the walls of the gallery’s gents with menstruating uteruses made of icing sugar and sweets.

And then there’s Tough Blood by film-maker Stephen Rudder and choreographer Skylitz, a dance conveying, with brutal beauty, the excruciatingly painful episodes suffered by people with sickle cell anaemia.

The show ends with Jordan Eagles’ installation Blood Equality: a room full of overhead projectors displaying acetates smothered in the dried blood of sexually active gay, bisexual and transgender people.

It’s a campaigning piece, made to highlight the UK and US blood services’ refusal to accept donations from this cohort on the same basis as other groups. The eye is drawn first to the acetate sheets themselves, and naturally enough – given the associations between spilt blood and violence and pain – it’s not a pretty sight. It might not be until you turn to leave the room that it dawns on you that this blood is being projected. The walls and ceiling and floor are covered with it: rich, crackled, stained and impossibly beautiful.

In a strong show, it’s hard to think of a work that better expresses the intent of this queasy, seductive exploration of “the essential, expressive and visceral nature of blood”.

Dream on, George

I am even tempted to have my own head cut off so that I can continue to dictate plays and books without being bothered by illness, without having to dress and undress, without having to eat, without having anything else to do other than to produce masterpieces of dramatic art and literature.

    —George Bernard Shaw