Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Review of Abnormal: Towards a Scientific Model of Disability by Ju Gosling at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons

Abnormal: Towards a Scientific Model of Disability
By Ju Gosling aka Ju90
Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
13 September 2011 – 14 January 2012

LAMED by your language
CRIPPLED by your charity
INVALIDATED by our doctors
VICTIMS of your systems
HANDICAPPED by society

Such is the conclusion of Helping the Handicapped (2003), a lambda print version of the website made by artist Ju Gosling as a commission for the Sinnlos [Senseless] Festival, Graz, as part of its European Capital of Culture celebrations that year. Coincidentally – or maybe not – that was also the European Year of People with Disabilities, when the European Commission set aside 12 million euros to raise awareness and bring about a greater degree of equality for disabled people. One might well query quite how much was actually achieved, and, certainly, on visiting Gosling’s current exhibition, Abnormal: Towards a Scientific Model of Disability, now on the final leg of its nine venue tour, the overarching impression seems to be that we are far from having an adequate integrational approach to disability.

As Gosling sees it, almost everyone will at some stage be disabled one way or another – it is an integral part of human life –  so it is increasingly necessary that society should see society itself as the problem, not the disabled people: “If I go to a building and there’s only stairs and no lift and I can’t get in, it’s my problem, because it’s my defective body. But, actually, the barriers are external. It’s not about us having a dysfunction – it’s about society being dysfunctional.”
Helping the Handicapped, also included in this exhibition, presents four different models of disability: the charity, the medical, the administrative, and the social. It was during a course at Guy’s Medical School, shortly after producing these tableaux, that Gosling began to question whether some of what she had included under the medical model (“I invent and administer tests to classify disabled people according to what I think are their impairments. Then I carry out experiments to try to make them more like me. If I fail, I try to identify and kill them before they are born”) should not instead belong in the science category, since it is scientists, not doctors, who carry out research. So Gosling undertook a residency at the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), during which she explored just this: whether or not there is a scientific model of disability that is distinct from the medical model. The works in this exhibition are the results of this project.

A site specific work, Memory Jar Collection (2011), consists of 90 specimen jars containing photographs of animal and human body parts (albeit still attached to their owners!), and is displayed in the Crystal Gallery amongst the 3000 odd jars from the collection of the eighteenth century surgeon, John Hunter, with which the museum was founded. Whereas, however, nothing is known about the identity of the people and animals from whom his specimen originate, the “donors” for Gosling’s collection all feature in a website catalogue, carefully numbered, and accompanied by biographical information.[1]

This systematic approach indeed has something quite scientific about it. “At school I wanted to do Biology A-Level along with Arts subjects,” Gosling recollects, in a conversation with Professor Jim Hunter, Deputy Principal of the Arts Institute Bournemouth, one of the exhibition’s previous venues.[2] “I’d forgotten this until I started doing SciArt [the course at Guy’s], and then I remembered, ‘I used to enjoy this, I used to find it interesting.’ But of course, you weren’t allowed to do a combination of subjects, because you were either an artist or a scientist.”

This dichotomy is reflected in Men in White Coats (2008). A series of thirteen white lab coats, hanging on coat stands, labelled, in English and German (this work was also commissioned in Graz), with words ranging from the more benign “Specimen Collector”, “Clever”, “Rational”, “Expert”, “Superior”, “Egghead” and “Genius”, to the threatening “Judge”, “Hunter”, “Jailer”, “Executioner”, “Omnipotent” and “God”. At the start of its period at the Royal College of Surgeons, the coat emblazoned with “Executioner” was hung outside the entrance to the museum, but, unfortunately, one of the head surgeons complained that it wasn’t doing all too much for their reputation! Enough said? Back in the gallery, a basket stands at the foot of the coat stand, containing one solitary apron, labelled “Artist”. This could just be reference to hierarchy and untouchable superiority, or perhaps there is also an underlying suggestion of the way that scientists view artists as mere basket cases?

Nonetheless, Gosling contends that scientists and artists do actually have rather a lot in common: “We are both concerned with understanding the meaning of life; […] we both depend on our imagination and creativity to develop our work.[3] […] We both problematise certainties. [We both] rattle cages.[4]” This idea is well rendered in the DVD work, Raison d’Etre (2008), where a CCTV monitor in the corner of the gallery displays a static image of vertical black and white lines, accompanied by a constant tapping or rattling noise. Gosling says this is representative of a cage being rattled. Maybe so, but it is also mightily aggravating, and perhaps suggestive of the uncomfortable annoyance much of society feels at being made to face and accommodate the “abnormal”?

Among the large prints on show are some, such as Wheels on Fire 1-6 (2003), a photographic montage of different wheelchairs throughout the ages, commissioned as part of a performance at the at the Science Museum and Battersea Arts Centre, which resound in technicolour; others, such as Abnormal 1-3 (2008), are more subtle, focusing on images of the body and words. Abnormal 2, for example, reads like an identikit description, and is coloured only in cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black), the four inks from which all other printed colours are built, analogous to the four bases of human DNA. Accordingly, the words are also arranged in groupings of three letters, just like genetic codes. Even more reduced, Abnormal 3 is simply the word ABNORMAL, writ large, in red. On closer inspection, however, we see the word HUMAN, smaller, filling the larger word. “In the end, either we are human, or we are not. Being human is what matters, rather than ideas of ab/normality.”[5]

Clearly there is a message, and Gosling, an articulate woman, is keen to expand on this. In conversation with Dr Sam Alberti, Director of the Hunterian Museum[6], she freely labelled her work as “Disability Art”. Surprised by this, I enquired whether she did not see this as derogatory. Certainly not, she replied, pointing me to much writing she has done on this subject:[7] “Isn’t it all about identity as something positive, and not discrimination? […] Having Pride [sic] in who we are, and being part of an art movement which challenges definitions of ‘normality’ and ‘disability’, is still the only way to achieve equality. […] It’s an international art movement like any other.” Moreover, she continued: “If I wasn’t labelled a disabled artist, I’d be labelled a woman artist. […] Being just ‘an artist’ is not how everyone else sees you, and it’s not how the art world sees you. I think it’s much better to embrace that and engage with it. […] Whether you label yourself of not, you’re certainly going to be labelled anyway.”

Like the Feminist Art movement of the 1970s, indeed, Disability Art is inherently political. It identifies a group of artists with a shared message and a recognisable form: “The use of colour is very different from the classical Western colour palette. We [disabled artists] don’t believe in the separation between mind and body, so our work tends to be much brighter. We reject the notion that bright colours are exotic, naïve, and feminine. […] [We] celebrate the irrational mind and the unrestrained body, and [our] colour palettes echo this.”

As for the message, well, with 95% disinvestment in the Disability Arts Sector over the past three years, and with so much misunderstanding and mislabelling out there, the conclusion drawn by the text on the closing wall panel in the exhibition is perhaps not too far fetched:

“[…] Scientists are all-powerful
and are experts on disability,
and therefore disability
will soon be eliminated.

It follows that
making fundamental changes to society
to accommodate disabled people
is a pointless waste of money […]”

If art can make people hear this as crass and ridiculous – yet scarily true – then regardless of how it is labelled, it is certainly worthy and relevant, and deserving of a tour of even more than nine venues.

[2] Abnormal Conversation, Bournemouth Library, 10 March 2009. Transcript available on the website to accompany the exhibition: http://www.scientificmodelofdisability.co.uk/ (accessed 13/10/11)
[3] See Ju’s Comments on Raison d’Etre on the website to accompany the exhibition: http://www.scientificmodelofdisability.co.uk/ (accessed 13/10/11)
[4] Abnormal Conversation, Bournemouth Library, 10 March 2009. Transcript available on the website to accompany the exhibition: http://www.scientificmodelofdisability.co.uk/ (accessed 13/10/11)
[5] See Ju’s Comments on Abnormal 3 on the website to accompany the exhibition: http://www.scientificmodelofdisability.co.uk/ (accessed 13/10/11)
[6] Abnormal Conversation, Hunterian Museum, 8 October 2011
[7] All sources available via the website http://www.scientificmodelofdisability.co.uk/ (accessed 13/10/11). See especially the Holton Lee blog and the transcript of a presentation given to the Australian Network of Arts and Technology’s Superhuman: Revolution of the Species symposium on 23 November 2003. Some words are also taken from personal conversation during and after the Abnormal Conversation at the Hunterian Museum, 8 October 2011.


Installation shot of Memory Jar Collection with the artist
Photo: Julie Newman

40” by 23” Lambda print on aluminium mount
© Ju Gosling aka ju90 2003

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