“Illness is a part of every human being’s experience. It enhances our perceptions and reduces self-consciousness. It is the great confessional; things are said, truths are blurted out which health conceals.” These remarkable words from Virginia Woolf’s short essay On Being Ill highlight the unique engagement between art and sickness. In any form, illness creates feelings that reach beyond what language enables us to communicate, but where language fails, alternate forms of artistic expression flourish.
Art, like illness, has the power ‘to enhance our perceptions’, make apparent what worldly things matter most and express deep anxieties, due perhaps, in part, to the simple realisation that: ‘life is too short’. However, the ability to reach this point involves navigating a lonely and frightening path. Whatever form an illness takes, the individual battling it requires a means to relate to their own pain or fear, to find a way of rationalising and understanding the change occurring to their minds or bodies.
Needless to say, the sterile environment of a hospital or a doctor’s office is not a conducive atmosphere to induce feelings of self-reflection. Huge innovation and research has been undertaken by hospitals and charities to dramatically enhance these environments and discover the medical benefits of creating stimulating artistic spaces for patients.
A particularly interesting example of this is Grayson Perry’s What Will Survive of Us is Love. This work was commissioned in 2012 for one of the cancer wards of University College London Hospitals and challenges, from its title, medium and subject, perceptions of both art and illness.
What Will Survive of Us is Love is a title taken from Philip Larkin’s poem An Arundel Tomb and are also the words that adorn the poet’s headstone in Westminster Abbey. Already, the artwork’s connotations of mortality are strong.
The meaning is further unpacked in Perry’s choice to make the artwork a floor piece. In huge cuts of linoleum, the work stretches across the ward’s reception room, showing (in homage once again to Larkin’s legacy) a mock configuration of a headstone. The interpretive scope here is multi-layered, ranging from the profound to the provocative, and the artist’s choice to risk undertones of morbidity and even poor taste, in this writer’s opinion, makes the work all the more powerful.
The use of an everyday substance such as linoleum creates an easy commune with the art. Paintings and sculptures do not often invite interaction, but Perry’s work enables them to literally step upon the piece and contemplate, from above, this engaging yet difficult work, that challenges the patient by confronting with the worrying reality of their situation. The impulse to surround an ill person with chirpy soundbites and a stream of optimism is commendable but perhaps not always what is needed because it does not fully acknowledge what the patient is experiencing.
Perry adorns his headstone with the image of a human who, in turn, is painted with images of the significant items and people that make up a life. The body contains, among other things, images of a house, a bed, an armchair, treasured childhood possessions, parents, children, pets, a cup of tea, a gardening trowel… These items are drawn as if growing throughout the human body in a circuit of arteries and are placed in the positions of vital organs. From the patient’s perspective, looking down on this collection of objects, their current state of illness is juxtaposed with images that represent the spectrum of people, places and things that make them happy and, ultimately, are what and who they live for.
Without sugar-coating, Perry has created a work that is at once comforting and confrontational. Some patients will engage on intellectual levels with the works whilst others will enjoy the visual stimulation the artwork provides, either way their state of mind is altered by the presence of art.
Article by Rebecca Jennings