Auto/Pathographies—(Self-)Representations of Illness in Contemporary Art.
Curated by Tamar Tembeck
Taking the media of photography, performance and video as an example, the group exhibition Auto/Pathographies addressed questions of identity and (self-)representation in the face of illness. Bringing together works from 10 artists based in Canada, the U.S., Britain and Austria, produced from the 1990s until today, the exhibition offered both sensitive and critical perspectives on the roles disease plays in redefining both individual existences and interpersonal relationships.
While autopathographic subject matter has figured more prominently in visual and performing arts over the last 25 years, few exhibitions have addressed this emerging topic directly. Auto/Pathographies was the first international group exhibition to specifically examine personal and collaborative representations of physical illness from a variety of disciplines. The works selected for the exhibition were presented in Austria for the first time.
These included a number of rare images from the Jo Spence Memorial Archive. Spence was the subject of an extensive retrospective in 2005/06 and her autopathographic series The Picture of Health? was presented at documenta 12 (2007). Auto/Pathographies featured Spence’s last photographic explorations of mortality from The Final Project series, which until then had only been exhibited in Finland and the UK.
With these and each of the artworks presented in Auto/Pathographies, sickness was transformed into a site of active aesthetic, political and even metaphysical inquiry—one whose interest extended well beyond that of a single, individual subject’s narrative.
While the majority of artworks included in the exhibition were produced from an autobiographical perspective (autopathography), some are the result of intimate collaborations between healthy and ill participants (relational pathography). In contrast, Christina Lammer’s video installation Empathographies conveyed clinicians’ perspectives on what it means to be a patient, thereby situating the exhibition’s (auto-)biographical figurations of illness within a larger biopolitical context. Although this was not the focal point of works shown in Auto/Pathographies, it was clear that the cultures of medicine—and the attendant “sick roles” attributed to patients—have a significant impact on the ways individuals experience disease.
Most of the featured artworks emphasized the subject in transformation. Intimate knowledge of the subject-in-flux revealed the limitations of any attempt to adequately communicate experiences of pathos. The collaborative works of Angela Ellsworth and Tina Takemoto attested to such failures of representation and further, to the limits of possible empathy between healthy and sick individuals, or between any two beings, for that matter—a limitation which, in the context of this exhibition, was felt by viewers experiencing auto/pathographies.
Admission of the partial, indirect, or incomplete figuration of pathos was common to many of the works included in the exhibition and sometimes be-came their very point of inquiry. Carl Bouchard’s video Mille excuses (So Sorry/Es tut mir Leid) expresses regret through verbal allusions to a traumatic incident experienced during surgical interventions to the anus. Since the artist failed to record and respond to these incidents when they occurred, his past trauma can only be addressed indirectly through the inverse mirror of his more recent dental surgeries, documented with a hand-held video camera.
The limits of representation—and indeed, of self-representation—were perhaps most clear in artists’ evocations of their own mortality. For The Final Project, Jo Spence sought inspiration from Mexican and Egyptian cultures in order to conduct her photographic figurations of death, which presented contemporary variations on vanitas and memento mori motifs. With Terry Dennett, Spence also revisited some of her older self-portraits, adding layers of decay so as to embed the passage of time into her past self-images. In conducting this impossible visual autothanatography, Spence likely attempted to practice an ars moriendi through the photographic medium. Rather than strictly convey a morbid end, however, Spence’s figurations of death also suggest the possibility of continued transformation, despite of the subject’s demise.
The prospect of hope, transmitted through various processes of regeneration manifested in these images, was a further element at play in the exhibition’s focus on the subject in transformation. In Chantal duPont’s video-diary Headstrong, the artist’s loss of hair during cancer treatment presents her with an opportunity to engage in masquerade and revisit childhood mParticipating artists: Carl Bouchard, Pascal Dufaux, Chantal DuPont, Angela Ellsworth & Tina Takemoto, Christina Lammer, Susan Markisz, Pam Patterson, Jo Spence, Jo Spence & Terry Dennettemories until her hair gradually grows back. Pam Patterson’s Lost Objects and Canto I: Travelling are likewise offered as transformative acts, although here, regeneration is not conveyed by the content of the images so much as by the gesture of their making.
Instead of failing to represent, the above artworks suggest that the image attests to processes that by definition exceed it. In this vein, Susan Markisz’s self-portrait The Road Back brings the irresolution of illness to the fore. Unlike the military imagery that guides many popular illness metaphors, misleadingly framing its possible outcomes as either “victory” or “defeat”, Markisz presents neither a celebratory embrace nor a recalcitrant retreat. In their place, she communicates a processual in-between that cannot be resolved to either extreme.
A convincing counter-proposal to the presumed limitations of interpersonal empathy is presented in Pascal Dufaux’s composite portrait of his uncle, Alzheimer_Buste. Although the ability to perceive another person’s experience of pathos is ultimately conditioned by the “eye of the beholder”, there is no absolute limitation on the time or attention with which the act of empathic looking can unfold. In Dufaux’s photographic process, the surface of the sitter’s body is carefully mapped over a three-hour period, documented by hundreds of digital snapshots taken across 360 degrees. The resulting composite image requires a lengthy process of re-assembly long after the sitter has left the studio. Close attention to the fragment-images of the sitter determines the nature of the portrait that emerges. Conducted “in complicity” with his uncle, Dufaux’s hyperpanoptic portrait can be seen as the relational enactment of empathy.
Tamar TEMBECK is an art historian, writer and performer based in Montreal. She completed her PhD in art history at the McGill University in Montreal with the dissertation Performative Autopathographies: Self-Representations of Physical Illness in Contemporary Art. Since 2003, Tamar Tembeck has also been working as a therapeutic artist with Dr. Clown in Montreal hospitals, long-term care facilities and rehabilitation centers.
Christina LAMMER is a sociologist, communications and cultural researcher who lives and works in Vienna. Her topics include the visualization of the human body in medical science, visual art and film.
Carl BOUCHARD (*1967 in Ville de La Baie) is an artist based in Chicoutimi, Canada.
Terry DENNETT ist Kurator am Jo Spence Memorial Archive London.
Pascal DUFAUX is a stage designer and visual artist.
Chantal DUPONT, a video artist, has been lecturing at the School of Visual Arts and Media at the University of Québec in Montréal since 1985.
Angela ELLSWORTH is an interdisciplinary artist (drawing, installation and performance) and teaches at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Tina TAKEMOTO is an interdisciplinary writer, theorist and performance artist. Her topics include issues of illness, gender, race and queer identity. Ihre Themen sind Krankheit, Geschlecht, Rasse und queere Identität. Seit 1992 arbeiten Ellsworth und Takemoto als Her/She Senses zusammen.
Susan MARKISZ is a multimedia journalist and contract photographer.
Pam PATTERSON forscht, performt und unterrichtet mit Fokus u. a. auf den Körper in der Kunst, feministische Kunsterziehung und Frauen- und Gender-Studien.
Jo SPENCE (1934-1992) was a photographer and teacher. In 1982, she broke new ground by developing methods of using photography as a therapeutic tool.