Monday, September 19, 2016

'The Art of Caring' at St Pancras Hospital, 18th September 2016

You feel a weird combination of reassurance and worry walking through the doors of an NHS clinic. The staff are busy yet friendly, the walls are festooned with upbeat primary coloured posters and there's a pleasantly paternalistic atmosphere. This is a place designed to make you well, doing its level best to send you out the door in better shape than you walked in. 

But then you notice the damp on the walls, the peeling paint and furniture that hasn't been replaced in 20 years. The NHS is suffering the death of a thousand cuts: the victim of a government ideologically opposed to a free at the point of use publicly owned health service. Jeremy Hunt assures us that they're merely 'modernising' the NHS when anyone with a glimmer of sense can see that he's setting it up to fail, its carcass fodder for the circling corporate vultures of the American healthcare industry. I mean, if it's not making investors any money, what's the point of it?

So it's wonderful to see an exhibition like The Art of Caring - a collection of work from nurses, patients and artists depicting their ideas on the theme of caring, specifically nursing. The exhibition is collaboration between Kingston University, The Arts Project and Camden & Islington NHS Foundation Trust, featuring work that ranges from photography, painting, performance and sculpture. Some of it is professional and polished, some is rough and passionate, but all displays a tenderness and empathy that perfectly suits the surroundings.

(Fractured Memories) Doll Therapy by Aran Illingworth
There's a lot to take in here, but I particularly enjoyed the following. (Fractured Memories) Doll Therapy by Aran Illingworth. It's a quietly devastating canvas piece about Alzheimers, capturing a painful morsel of misery in the eyes of someone whose memory is gradually eroding away. The arts n crafts textile look adds to the emotional wallop, not only looking like something a kindly grandmother might make, but the rough shapes and soft fabric underlining the subjects humanity and increasingly blurry edges.

Comfort and Joy - Susie Mendelsson
On a slightly different wavelength is Susie Mendelsson's Comfort and Joy, a bizarre mixed-media sculpture of a creepily wizened homunculus approaching a baby from behind while a tiny man stares on in horror. It's disturbing stuff, the soft manufactured plastic of the doll contrasting with the hand-carved chaos of the monster. That title has got to be a joke, because there's precious little comfort or joy in this. If I had to pick out a meaning, it seems to speak of a mother's trauma at losing a baby, then feeling guilt that the next one survives. Even as she cares for her healthy baby, she cannot help but imagine the forgotten one, balefully staring on in jealousy.

One Day at a Time - Susie Mendelsson
Also by Mendelsson is One Day at a Time, depicting a worried looking person weighed down by faceless little men. This is a little easier to parse, but no less effective. Here the effect of the paranoias, traumas and miseries of the past is literalised, showing them crawling all over an apparently normal person going about their day to day life. It looks suitably nightmarish, the haunted expression of the central figure conveying a palpable desperation.

Charlotte CHW
Sunday's event was capped off by a live performance from Charlotte CHW, who was also exhibiting photographs. Dressed in a suit that perfectly matched the brickwork of the building, she writhed about against the walls and on the floor accompanied by a soundtrack of breaking glass. Watching this it's difficult not to look up at the gently spooky Victorian brickwork and wonder just how long this hospital is going to last. Generations of Londoners have walked through these halls, each with their own individual ailments and stories to tell.

The performance understands this history, treating the building like a psychological sponge that's sucked up a century of trauma and needs to be squeezed dry.  Charlotte's movements are slow, painful and precise - it's like you can see dust crumbling from her joints as she repeatedly collapses and rises, trapped in some infinite loop of pain, healing and more pain. I dug it.

Anyhow, The Art of Caring is well worth checking out, demonstrating not only the public's affection for the NHS and its nurses, but just how critical its long-term support systems are. Whether you've sprained your ankle, suffered trauma in Blair's oil wars or are watching an elderly relative succumb to dementia, the NHS will always be there. But it also needs us to fight for it.

Art is Caring is at The Conference Centre, St Pancras Hospital, 4 St Pancras Way, London NW1 OPE (9am-5pm) until 13 October 2016.

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