Topography of Harm still seems to have much life in it and direction. I’ve been dwelling on what purpose these works serve and what promise they could hold. Yesterday, I went to see the ‘Making Nature’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. I haven’t been to this museum since I was a teenager and it continues to live up to its slogan of being ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’. It was also, dare I say it, a sanctuary of curious grown-ups!
After being greeted by Anthony Gormley’s inverted suspension ‘Feel’ (2001)in the atrium and climbing the beautiful staircase we watched a film broadcast on 3 screens all about communication – and humanity’s need to create giant listening ears for alien life (like ESA’s new deep-space listening station) across the universe without really hearing the lifeforms on this planet that are gradually becoming extinct (actually without hearing their fellow man at times). As always seems to happen, something that I thought I was just watching settles deep deep inside and then resurfaces after sleep as being of profound impact. The exhibit was called ‘The Great Silence’ and it beamed the sound of silence from deep space (intimating that any intelligent life would do its absolute utmost to stay undetectable by the human species- a contributing factor to understanding the Fermi Paradox). The silence however is the sound of space ever vibrating from the Big Bang. Space is vibrating, that sound rippling further and further away like a great wave on a puddle. Yet for all this that we can listen in on, we fail to communicate with each other and ourselves. what if we strove for listening to our internal deep space, or listening to another’s?
In the next exhibition I knew I would have rather a closed mind: ‘Bedlam’. Whilst I fully uphold the importance of righting the wrongs of those incorrectly incarcerated and those who were mental health patients whose treatment was inhumane, I do believe that we mustn’t over-romanticise the legacy of mental health illnesses on family and friends and community. There is still the drowning-the-witch chair feel to diagnosis. If you say your insane then you’re incarcerated, if you claim your sanity then it proves your insanity. The exhibition did highlight the circus of therapies available as contemporary treatment – but this made me question all the more – what do we have that we can cling to as sanctuary in our lives. What makes us feel safe? I think I was turning over in my head those amulet pieces.
Finally, we went into the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibition with its wonderfully idiosyncratic display ranging from medical instruments (like an array of historical amputation saws) to the amusing array of rather more er sensitive(?) exhibits – a chastity belt, fruit sculptures containing a miniature couple mid foreplay. But what really caught my eye, were the amulets and reliquaries ( see Wellcome Images then search ‘amulets’). There seems to be an ancient and human need for something tangible to help us feel protected. From the comfort of a doll or teddy for children, to hope beads to enable a child to map their progress through chemotherapy treatment, to the amulets and reliquaries of ancient and other cultures.
Which brought me back to my making. These miniature amulet designs are serving not just to ward off, like the guardians, but are actually seeking to bring goodness towards. They purpose of these amulets seem to be to attract and repel. The secret script on many of the resembles the asemic texts I have been working with.
There is much mileage in the creating of guardians and amulets to protect against the harm that is being mapped out in the series.
This also gives me room to work on a range of scales and with a variety of media – significantly into 3d.
When I watched all the people hunched over at the station waiting for the train, crouched over their phones, it made me realise, we so want to be found yet we are busied up in the business of finding, we want to be discovered, yet there’s that real innate drive for discovery, we want something other to connect and communicate with us. Our sense of sight is overused – it is the sense that is supposed to protect us – alert us to danger, find a safe route, help hunt for food. Yet what about out deeper senses, what about that very human sense of imagination. Imagine if we really listened. Really heard and understood. That’s what we’re searching for in our likes and dislikes I think. Something that says, ‘I’m here’ and something that says ‘Yes’. Aren’t we looking for home? Why would we listen across space for intelligent life? It’s not just for protection against some imagined threat from alien species. It’s not to be shown how much more intelligent another life form is. It’s because we really don’t want to be alone out there in that great huge void of space. But just as interpersonal loneliness is separate from existential loneliness, being heard is separate from communicating.
Perhaps that is what we artists are doing on the page, in the air, on the bare surface: populating empty space to ward of that existential loneliness. Trying to hear our spirit on the page?
And when I realised this and looked at all my fellow passengers, curle over their phones, plugged into headphones, staring at these tiny screens, I recognised that I need to make more amulets. I need something to hold on to that shows I’m not invisible, even if it is a tiny 1″ piece of card with my marks. Those marks trace my beingness. They might speak to another too.