Paintings in Hospitals: Framing the Future

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Transcript from a provocation by our Artistic Director, Dr Errol Francis, given at the Paintings in Hospitals’ 60th anniversary event at the Royal College of Physicians, in 2019. 

“First of all, happy birthday and congratulations to Paintings in Hospitals for your 60 years of promoting wellbeing in hospitals with art and beauty.

As a visual artist and artistic director of Culture&, which is devoted to opening up who makes and enjoys the arts, I am a passionate believer of the power of art, not only to produce wellbeing, but also to question the world in which we live and, possibly, suggest new ways of being.

In addressing this brief about the future of visual arts and health, I would like to stress diversity as well as putting visual arts in context with other art forms. I would also like to suggest ways in which we might make the arts more representative of our population and how it can address the new social realities in which we live and our changing understanding of the human body in relation to health, science, its care and treatment. This necessarily involves questioning the status of the visual and place it in context with other art forms. This is something we do at Culture& all the time, even though I am trained as a visual artist I always think about what are the limits of visual art and how it can gain power by its curation within a wider artistic context.

My starting point is a quotation from the American photographer Diane Arbus. She said, surprisingly for a photographer: “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.”

Arbus was referring to the limitation of the visual to communicate meaning. The visual overload, particularly in our Western society in the proliferation of visual information, often results in a shutdown in our perceptual faculties in which we cease to process the information being conveyed to our brains simply because it’s too much. As Tate said in their recent 2015 ‘Sensorium’ programme: “Galleries are overwhelmingly visual. But people are not…”

The brain understands the world by combining what it receives from all five senses. So, drawing on the concept of the cyborg, which is a part human, part machine concept, which we addressed in our recent programme at the Wellcome Collection, the increasing progress of medical technology demands that we rethink the boundaries we perceive between human and non-human, between races, genders or classes, and the art forms through which we can address this.

I think this is important in the delivery of art in hospital or healthcare settings for four main reasons. First, healthcare reflects all of the inequalities in our society in relation to race, gender, sexuality, social class, in ways such as the overrepresentation of certain groups with a particular condition, such as ethnic minorities and mental health, the relationship between poverty and TB, or the whole range of conditions and variations in relation to gender.

Second, we now know much more about the potential of different artforms to promote wellbeing, such as singing as for people with respiratory disorders or the benefits of music for people living with dementia.

And third, the experience of illness can sometimes compromise our various faculties, including the visual, which need to be re-stimulated or reawakened for us to regain our health and wellbeing.

And fourth, and quite importantly, visual art is not what it was. It now encompasses a range of practices, including video, performance, installation, sound and even smell – appealing to a greater number of faculties than the purely visual. This is particularly important, considering the range of conditions that I have mentioned, some of which affect particular senses, particular faculties – and there are many more conditions that can affect our ways of experiencing the world and our appreciation, particularly, of visual art.

So, drawing on our recent Cyborgs programme, here is a snapshot of a future Paintings in Hospitals programme in collaboration with other arts and health practitioners for the year 2025.

There will be a virtual reality and video digital art installation that will be available for a children’s hospital, allowing patients not only to experience artworks but to enter them and to alter the spaces that are being created and represented in the artworks. There will be a multisensory immersive environment in which patients experience sounds, smells, tastes and physical forms inspired by visual artworks, allowing them to record and review their responses through playful measurement devices. An installation, perhaps, of the Italian artist Maria Novella Del Signore called ‘Cut Grass’ that replicates the smell of a freshly mown lawn. A retrospective, perhaps, of the Serbian artist Marina Abramović. Her sound pieces, video works, installations and photographs, which also involve solo and collaborative performances with audience participation. There could be a performance of Jocelyn Pook’s ‘Hysteria: A Song Cycle for Singer and Psychiatrist’, that Culture& recently commissioned, which explores the impact of psychological trauma on the body. Or, perhaps, there could be a performance of ‘Remembering Who I Am’, a stroke rehabilitation project using dance and movement in collaboration with contemporary dance venue The Place.

These programmes would be delivered by a diverse range of artists in terms of gender, social class, social background and cultural diversity. It would put into context the role of what has historically been understood as visual art or ‘the visual’ and make connections with all five human senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. ”

Watch the full provocation here.