John Umney has had an ongoing involvement with the Artscape Project and it was through the auspices of the Project Manager, Tom Cox, that John was offered the opportunity to exhibit work in the permanent art-space at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Oxford. John decided he wanted to use this opportunity to create a collaborative exhibition with contributions from students in the final stages of their Photography Degree Course with the OCA.. His blog post here describes the collaborative work he undertook with Penny Watson to put it all together and her post about it is here). SubsequentlyJohn also wrote an article for the Oxford Times, see here which provided further publicity for the Exhibition.
On the day of the Study Visit we met, with Sharon Boothroyd and Jesse Alexander in the main entrance to the Orthopaedic Centre which has a world-wide reputation for orthopaedics, rheumatology and rehabilitation. I think the current building is fairly new and it is open, airy and very unlike the hospitals I’m used to visiting in my area.
We first talked with Tom Cox, who is a practising artist, in addition to his role as the Artscape Project Manager at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust , providing a range of art activities and also commissioning new artworks to enhance the hospital environment. He is also currently studying for a part-time MA in Social Sculpture. Sharon asked him what he gained from his role to which his response was that he gets the opportunity to work with a range of artists outside the gallery system and to help people to get well. It was obvious from the way Tom talked about Artscape that he is deeply committed to his work and the impact that art of all kinds can have on mental and physical health.
The art-space is free to utilise within certain restrictions regarding political work, nudity and operation scenes. It also appeared that there are more covert restrictions. Tom Cox and John explained that there had been several complaints regarding the work of Sue Jones, to the extent that her work had been removed from its setting, as some people had been upset by it. Comments had also been made by some staff regarding Penny Watson’s photographs along the lines that it looked as if the children were nude and one of them looked uncomfortable (see below).
This Brochure provides an overview of the aims of the Exhibition, with Statements from each photographer.
I’ll make brief comments about the photographers, particularly regarding how they have approached the theme of the Exhibition and also think about the context of the Exhibition environment.
Entering from the atrium, to a corridor leading to the outpatient’s departments, with a small reception counter inset at the beginning. Four photographers were exhibiting along these corridors.
Remembering I’m ill – Sue Jones
This series is about coping with a relapse in health of ME (or CFS – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) which creates fatigue, concentration difficulties and memory problems . It looked to me as if she had used a tilted lens to provide a slightly out of balance view that fits with her theme. I noticed that the colour palette of the six images shown was often of soft deep reds and/ochre.
Apparently one of those who complained said it looked as if the images were depicting suicide. It didn’t look like that to me but then I knew about the work and had previously read her statement and I haven’t got personal experience of ME or been close to anyone who committed or threatened suicide. There was obviously something about these photographs though that struck negative chords for several people.
There was a subsequent WeAreOCA post by John raising the issue of the removal of the work. There are a range of responses – from people who have suffered similarly from ME, with this ‘invisible’ illness being misunderstood or who have a relative in this situation, to someone who visited another hospital to collect a child who had made a suicide attempt and would herself have felt disturbed to see such photographs. This was despite her view that the message being put across regarding ME is invaluable and “… the way the artwork does this very considered”. Sue also commented on this post making it clear that her original aim in creating this series was
[…] to keep my sense of humour as I had gone for a stressful international sales job, and doing triathlons on the side, to becoming house bound and challenged to even make it to the pharmacy down the street.
and that she had never aimed to disturb anyone although with hindsight, perhaps a hospital environment adds a different interpretation. It is also proof of how much an image can take on a life of its own once it leaves the hands of its creator.
Recollective – Mike Cookson
This is a Series looking at differences in weight of memory from the “casual capture of a moment through a ‘selfie’” to “evidence of the collective memory that spans generations”.
Vandals or Memories – Margaret Taylor
A series asking, “Do people leave their marks on trees as vandals? Or do they have a desire to be remembered, to say they existed, to memorialise themselves?”
The photographsare harmonious in colour tones and details of textures and, to me, this theme of trees brought the external environment inside. This got me thinking about ways in which the series could be presented as an installation – maybe hanging from the branches of a tree structure or placed within a book with bark covers.
Along the Frozen Valley – Mirjam Bollag Dondi
Remembering a relationship
We used to hike
Along the frozen river …
But now you left – to live
In the land
Of not remembering –
And so I walk alone
Peaceful images and yet with an air of sadness in their cool colours.
I thought it was a shame that (as with Margaret Taylor’s series) these photographs had to be placed above the chairs rather than opposite them due to the layout of the corridors. It would have been nice to think that patients could sit and look at them whilst they were waiting.
Where there seems to be more room and sweep of corridor.
Eudosia – Penny Watson
Exploring the relationship a child has with their landscape and how childhood memories become our adult folklore. The children gaze at us wearing their coronets of foraged foliage, as if from Midsummer Night’s Dream or an earlier more pagan time. I’m only sorry that I couldn’t really capture the beauty of the images as they glow from their dark backgrounds.
We had been told that some staff had expressed concerns about the images and yet all is clearly explained (as was Sue Jones’ series) in the accompanying information
where Penny made it clear that parents had been involved; the bare shoulders were to remove any cultural distractions and she tried to capture faces without smile or expression – to see beyond those into their eyes and to see their strength of character.
There was additional information showing some behind the scenes images of the process of creation.
Lifting the Curtain – Keith Greenough
Keith’s new website for this series provides comprehensive information about this series which grew from his fascination with East London and how it has been shaped by its history.
We had some discussion with him about the images themselves and his choice to visit the sites in the early morning when there were few people around – making it easier to use a large camera; to achieve the chiaroscoru effect of dark and light and use shadows to reference the past. We also talked about his experiments in the use of font and text to reference the work of Charles Booth’s 1889 socio-cultural survey, Life and Labour of the People.
Are You Still There – John Umney
Here being looked at by Russell, fellow OCA student.
John explained that the images arose originally from his emotional attachment/reaction to light and then developed as he experimented in using text (written to or by himself). The images are displayed pairs (one in landscape format, the other in portrait format) within seven frames, so that they appear like a physical structure, with the corridor doors acting as ‘interruptions’ – a conversation point as John termed it.. The text is under the images. Originally he had placed some of them in a book that forced you into a narrative sequence but, as presented here, you could attempt to build your own narrative.
The images are small in the frames, intended to create intimate moments, delicate and beautiful to look at. I actually couldn’t relate the text to them and yet that didn’t seem to matter as they evoked a contemplative mood in me. As Sharon put it, image and text are like two parallel ‘conversations’.
Thoughts on the environmental context
I think the hospital does offer a wonderful opportunity for photographers and other artists to show their work, notwithstanding that it is freely available subject to certain ‘regulations’ regarding the kind of images that are acceptable.
There was no indication in the large main entrance atrium that there was a Photography Exhibition along the corridors. I think it would be good if there could be some kind of noticeboard to let visitors know. Maybe in future the ‘Friends of the Hospital” section could even host some flyers/simple brochures.
The corridor lighting is for the people travelling along them and not for artistic display, which means that it may not be possible for images to be presented to their best advantage.
It was a Saturday when we visited and very quiet. This was good for us because we had space and time to look at and discuss the photographs. Even so, on the ground floor, there were at least three occasions when a patient and bed were wheeled along the corridor past us, and this made me feel somewhat ‘out of place’. I would think that there would be much more activity along those corridors during weekdays making it hard for visitors and staff to do little other than have a quick glance as they walk, or are wheeled, past. They certainly wouldn’t be able to read the available information about the images. It also occurs to me now to wonder about the hanging space and whether it allows people in a wheelchair to see the art.
I was sorry that Sue Jones’ work received some adverse comments. It very much reinforced for me the dictum often repeated that, as an artist, one should create work to please oneself because it takes on a life of its own once it becomes public. The issue also reinforced that you really do have to look at the context of an Exhibition and how work will be received and I think it’s important to do some research on this beforehand. For example, there are comments on the WeAreOCA post mentioned above referring to the Nuffield Centre as dealing with purely broken bones whereas in fact it deals with much more complex and longstanding issues than this. It also treats bone infection and tumours, limb reconstruction and the rehabilitation of those with limb amputation or complex neurological disabilities.
In a hospital environment viewers are likely to be there by necessity rather than choice and they are unable to walk-out because they don’t like a piece of art. Their only recourse if they feel distressed is to complain and in many respects it’s good to know that at least their complaints were heard, even though one may not be happy with the outcome.
All the work was presented within the same size and type of frame. I know that this was to provide cohesion to a different variety of images in addition to reasons of economy and scale but I had wondered beforehand whether this might detract from some of the work. However, I was pleased that this was not the case at all.
I thought this was a very well put together Exhibition presenting a range of responses to the theme of Memory, at an advanced level of student work. It was professionally hung and framed and of a standard which I think equals or surpasses that of the Graduate exhibitions that I have seen. This achievement of John and Penny is particularly impressive given that this was a long-distance collaboration, involving a number of people – from the exhibiting students themselves, help with the hanging from Keith Greenough (also showing in the Exhibition) and support from the OCA and Tom Cox.
Congratulations to all and I’m pleased I was able to observe as the concept developed and then see it through to Oxford.
23rd June 2015