A Stranger in a Strange Land
Between 27 November and 18 December 1992, artists Rebecca Fortnum, Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, Gwen Hardie, Anne Morrison, Jacqui Poncelet and Pam Skelton held a group exhibition at the Norwich Gallery, entitled Somatic States: The Body Abstract. During this same period I was diagnosed with a locally aggressive bone tumour which would require extensive surgery to my right knee and result in permanent disability. I was twenty-six years old. A Stranger in a Strange Land is an experiment into personal, autobiographical curation, using some of the themes and ideas expressed by the Somatic States artists in correspondence and documents found in the NUA archive.
“’Somatic States’ … can be seen as a response to the current discussion of ‘The Body’ in art… perhaps new territory can be opened up by considering specifically non-representational or abstract works that relate to this area”. (Rebecca Fortnum, 1992)
The above quotation is taken from the press release accompanying the exhibition and was the starting point for my own exploration, together with a clinical definition of ‘somatic state’ as being “the physiological changes that occur in the body in response to an emotionally charged stimulus that is present in the environment, or to a thought (memory) that has some emotional significance”.
The vitrine is an intimate and ‘quiet’ form of display which is restricted spatially, requiring a curatorial approach that is spare and uncluttered if meaning is to be conveyed eloquently. However, the physical smallness of the cabinet can be exploited, in this instance, as a visual expression of how it feels to be limited by one’s own body which no longer allows the freedom of movement it once did. The black hinged knee brace, (Fetish), squashed under the glass deliberately dominates the space in the same way that, for a considerable length of time the physiological and psychological impact post-surgery was a personal preoccupation. The brace itself is bound and restricted, offering another layer of containment, but it also expresses an attempt to limit and control the impact of disability upon my life.
Other items of personal significance are offered up for public scrutiny along with documents from the NUA archive relating to Somatic States, bringing together two separate ‘states’ which occurred in different locations but which overlap temporally, and now also spatially. There is insufficient space for further discussion of my choice of materials here, except to indicate that they were selected both in response to a personal reading of the archive material and a conscious desire to communicate a coherent narrative to the audience. Extracts from R.L. Withers’ accompanying text (Appendix 1) have been transformed into ‘artefacts’ in their own right in part as an acknowledgement of its importance to the artists as indicated in a letter from Rebecca Fortnum, and partly for their serendipitous resonance with my own response to the exhibition.
Of great significance to me, and a principal reason for choosing this particular exhibition, is the potential for developing the idea into a more ambitious and collaborative work involving a series of vitrines co-curated with an artist, health professionals, and women living with long-term disabilities and chronic physical conditions. I am interested in the female experience of disability, particularly as it relates to a transition from a state of ‘health’ to one of illness in those not born with an impairment, and the attendant issues of body image and re-negotiation of social roles . These are concerns mirrored by some of the artists in Somatic States, particularly Fortnum and Isaacs, whose primary concern, according to the press release “is to re-invent the female body as an ongoing image of subjective experience”. (Fortnum, 1992). I my vitrine display a new title to differentiate it from the work in the original exhibition and to indicate that it is a response to, rather than a straightforward curation of archive material from the show. Stranger in a Strange Land implies feelings of disorientation and attempts at re-negotiation physically, spatially, and psychologically, frequently experienced by the newly-disabled.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?
There are pitfalls inherent in developing such a proposal for public display. In Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance Paul O’Neill examines some of the ongoing arguments concerning the role of the curator and their sometimes perceived misappropriation of the role of artist. (O’Neill 2010: 21 – 26). Such an accusation might well be levelled at a project such as Stranger in a Strange Land in that, in the words of Sigride Schade, it is “[selling]… curatorial concepts as the artistic product” (Schade 1999:11). One way in which to circumvent criticism, and ensure a high quality artistic outcome, would be to identify artists from the outset whose practice fitted ideologically with the “concept” and to step back into the role of curator/project coordinator once the framework had been mutually agreed. Having used my own disability as source material for the first iteration of Stranger, as curator, or “curator as meta/artist”, (O’Neill: 21), I am able to appreciate the experience from the viewpoint of artist, participant and curator, which gives me valuable information to develop the proposal further (Appendix 2).
Another anticipated criticism might be that of straying into territory occupied by the Art Therapist. To avoid this a dialogue between artist, curator, and possibly occupational health professionals would need to take place at the outset to profile candidates most psychologically suited to engage with the project without triggering harmful levels of distress. Freedom to participate or not would be up to the individual, and an emphasis on the artistic outcome for the project would be paramount. Art Therapy, by contrast, is a specialised area of psychotherapy, used to engage clients, (often hospital in-patients), with severe mental health issues who find it difficult to communicate verbally. [In the present author’s opinion] it should never be used as a vehicle for public exhibition. Even if a client gives permission, it is ethically dubious.
The experiment with Stranger begins to indicate a way in which a public art project might be developed which would include, rather than exclude, and produce a coherent and powerful body of artwork.
As a curatorial display device the vitrine, normally sits at the margin of an exhibition and is frequently a mere receptacle for documentation and/or small objects which have no other place within the body of the exhibition. Obvious parallels may be drawn here with the experience of marginalisation frequently experienced by the disabled, and especially by disabled women. However, the intimate nature of the vitrine also lends itself to a form of display which demands attention and concentration on the part of the audience. An entire, contained world can be created within its confines, with the power to engage the viewer in a private conversation with the artist. By placing a collection of vitrines centre stage quiet voices may be allowed to be heard.
 I have allowed myself a small private joke here. Withers makes reference to H.P.Lovecraft in one of the extracts; I have used a typeface downloaded from the website of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society
 According to a study carried out by the Bayer College of Medicine,Texas, in 1996: “Women with disabilities face all the issues that women in general face in terms of body image (such as size, weight, breast size and shape, and physical fitness), but this is complicated by disability related issues. These issues include scars, deformities, disfigurement, abnormal expressions and gestures, the presence of devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, artificial limbs, and braces, devices for bowel and bladder management, and the possibility of public bowel and bladder accidents.”
 In this case, such artists would be likely to be working in the arena of public/community art projects, with a specific interest in health issues, and the female body.
 Apart from ethical debates about the nature of consent, the work carried out in art therapy begins in an entirely different place and has a completely different objective to that of an art project with a public exhibition as its primary agenda. Even where the outcomes have superficial visual similarities, romanticising the creative output of the mentally ill as ‘Outsider Art’, such as in Jean Dubuffet’s collection of Art Brut is fraught with danger. It undermines the role of art in psychotherapy and devalues the public art project as a vehicle for examining challenging social or psychological issues.