Artists Working in the Medical Field

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Interior of artist book: one page blood red, the other a diagram

Information about surgery with an illustration of a digestive tract

Fiona Davies, Artist • www.fionadavies.com.au

Davies, an Australian visual artist, gave a short talk on her practice and then showed a series of images of her work. The images included pictures of an artist book called Blood on Silk: Bleeding out Internally. In 2016 this book was part of an exhibition in the UK entitled Prescriptions. All the artists in the exhibition were responding to issues around medicine with a central focus on US artist Martha Hall’s artist books, which document her treatment for breast cancer. This large collection is held by the University of New England in Portland, Maine. Davies described Blood on Silk as follows:

I have worked since early 2005 with the idea of medicalized death, and in particular the medicalized death of my father. His was a death within the highly-mediated environment of an Intensive Care Unit where the primary purpose is to preserve and prolong life. He was there for four and a half months. I have become more and more interested in specific materials, processes and critical definitions in this context and, increasingly, in the idea of being involved in a performative experience as a witness. 

One of the materials used in these contexts is blood and blood products. It is a fundamentally essential circulatory material. Determination of the presence or absence of chemical markers and in what quantities, the percentage of red blood cell oxygenation and the blood pressures are all elements of this material. Speculation about the economic uses of the material of blood, the synthesis of artificial blood and the process of testing are some of the questions I raise in my work. 

Each attendee then gave a short introduction about themselves and their work. The majority of the attendees were US-based visual artists. There were also a much smaller number of visual artists from other countries, several curators and administrators working in hospitals and other medical institutions both in the US and overseas, artists working in non-hospital environments and a medical modeler.  

The main areas of discussion that arose from the Round Table could primarily be considered issues of professional practice - issues of how to be shown and/or collected and what to show. One interesting area where the visual artists diverged was that US artists noted that US hospitals tended to be considered private spaces, while in other parts of the world they tended to be thought of as public spaces. From country to country, stated requirements varied widely across a whole range of issues such as diversity and inclusion in public versus private spaces. All artists found it challenging to determine who were the gatekeepers; who made the decisions. 

Most of the visual artists were working from an autobiographical experience of a medical institution. Attendees related a range of snippets of advice they had been given about what was and was not acceptable in medical facilities. Several reported being told to avoid direct references to sensitive subjects, while others reported being told to avoid the color red.

Curators and administrators of medical institutions responded that this depended on the individual institutions and that they were not aware of a widespread rule against red or indeed against any particular subject matter.  

There was some discussion about work outside of medical institutions, such as 3D modeling, installation and other non-2D art formats. The roundtable was extremely well-attended and the discussions were very lively.