AHSW's Director and Trustees reflect on various aspects of arts, health and wellbeing.
The Barometer of my Heart
AHSW Director Alex Coulter reflects on Mark Storor’s work-in-progress performance at the Wellcome Collection.
I first met the artist Mark Storor in 2004 through Visiting Time, a project at Dorset County Hospital. We worked with a young man with Cystic Fibrosis, Gareth, whose story informed a site-specific performance by school children in the hospital. Suggestive of genes, the children were dressed in identical striped pyjamas with pillows on their heads. They performed in small groups along corridors and in the X-Ray department, to both an invited audience and for any staff, patients or visitors who happened to pass by. The event has remained in my memory as the most subversive and provocative arts intervention of all my 15 years as arts coordinator at the hospital. It disrupted the very psyche of the hospital space, overlaid patient and performer and was a steep learning curve for me in questions of participation, ethics and risk.
Visiting Time became the first of a whole series of works exploring difficult health issues through participatory performance that Mark has created in collaboration with the producer Anna Ledgard. I was involved again with Mark and Anna on the project Boy Child, performed in a disused building on Portland by men and boys from local communities in Dorset. This was followed by For the Best, first devised with children in the Evelina Children’s Hospital Renal Unit and performed at the Unicorn Theatre in London, where it won the 2009 Theatre Management Award. Then Mark and Anna took For the Best to Liverpool where the creative input from adults attending Renal Dialysis at the Liverpool University Hospital informed a performance in a disused office block. Dominic Cavendish, writing in the Telegraph, described it as a “world turned upside down with a cast who perform wonders” and said that “what the piece does, mainly, is capture what it’s like to be under extreme emotional stress – when almost nothing needs to be said because everything is only a heartbeat away from being too much.”
So, when I attended Mark’s work-in-progress performance of The Barometer of My Heart at the Wellcome Collection a couple of weeks ago I brought to it my own personal evolving relationship with this body of work, which has always been, for me, at the edge, pushing the boundaries in the complex dialogue between arts and health. The performance started with consultant endocrinologist, Dr Leighton Seal, explaining the medical context and consequences of erectile dysfunction, a condition that affects 40% of men over 40 and 70% over 70. Perhaps one of the greatest taboos, Leighton communicated in an eminently scientific and professional manner his profound, even desperate need to raise awareness of the significance of erectile dysfunction and the benefits of early diagnosis in saving emotional lives and actual lives. Erectile dysfunction is an independent marker of cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease and stroke. It is also associated with stress, depression, low self-esteem, divorce and loss of employment.
For the past two years, Mark has been leading creative workshops to explore male identity with men in religious, military, sports and corporate settings as well as working with men attending Leighton Seal’s erectile dysfunction clinics at St. George’s Hospital, Tooting. This process will result in a performance made in collaboration with participants and an international company of artists which will be performed The performances will take place from the 15th September to the 4th October at the Sir Ludwig Guttmann Health and Wellbeing Centre in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London.
Unusually, Mark was offering us an insight into the creative process at an intermediary point, somewhere between the participatory workshops and the final performance. This event, at the Wellcome Collection, was part of Mark’s own journey through conversations with the men he has encountered, from the taxi driver who poured his heart out when Mark mentioned the subject of his work, to deeply traumatised patients attending Leighton’s clinic. Mark talked to us about their stories, half explaining his thought processes and half performing them around and in an installation inspired by the experiences he had heard. Pliers represented self-inflicted pain through pulling out toe nails; a mound of flowering earth recalled the smell of testosterone gel; a china dog spoke of impotence and anger. In the middle a web of red thread trapped a trombone like Gulliver fallen.
In the finished work Mark won’t perform, he will lead the collaborative artistic process that is performed by others. I have never seen him perform before but in this process he used himself to explore the metamorphosis of the stories into performance. Images of a figure trampolining were projected onto Mark’s naked body and as he moved to catch the images they became part of him; the body itself a fluid metaphor, inside and outside. He was vulnerable, alone and naked, but his dance with the image seemed to express the essence of creative flow; the betweeness between art and science, the body and the spirit.
Mark’s work is always uncompromising and he has a strong and distinctive artistic vision but it interested me that with this project he seems to care as much about helping Leighton to achieve his vision and the potential impact on people’s health behaviours as about the art itself. It is not because Mark is thinking of the work as instrumental, but rather that he realizes its power to transform and reveal. As he says: “Art allows us to look at things we can’t see and to give us a language for things that are unsaid. Too much is hidden, too much is covered up.” This art takes us on an intuitive and sensory journey where language is expanded through the body to help us empathise with the experience of an emotionally devastating and physically debilitating condition.
Director, Arts & Health South West
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