If you're an artist, what kind of art do you make?
an artist, photographer and writer but when my daughter became ill with ME four years ago I found myself cast as a traveller between two worlds, worlds that are eloquently described by Susan Sontag in her book Illness as Metaphor:
'Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.'
Residing in the world of the well I felt assuaged with guilt at not being able to offer my daughter any firm answers as to why she was trapped in the land of the sick. And, because ME is still shrouded within an aura of disbelief and misconception, I decided to explore ways in which, through photography, this invisible illness could be made visible to a disbelieving audience.
Subject matter for my final show followed three themes. One part consisted of still life and constructed imagery; the everyday objects, places and spaces that metamorphose into new worlds and vistas in the face of chronic illness, inviting the viewer to discover their own ‘meaning’, coloured by individual experience.
Alongside this I produced a series of six portraits of young women who also suffer from ME. Posed within the confines of their own bedrooms the models hold a favourite soft toy to express their vulnerability and show how, by reverting back to a childlike state, they seek comfort from the familiar as they attempt to cope with living in the 'kingdom of the sick'. In keeping with this theme of observation I also drew correlations with a similar illness that was prevalent in the 1800’s called neurasthenia and developed a series of images based upon the Victorian obsession with collections and the museum.
Finally medical research helped ground the project and widened my perception of the illness in general. I visited hospitals, talked with medical researchers, and photographed tilt tables at the RVI and an MRI scanner at Newcastle General, gathering printouts from their research along the way. I also collected vintage microscope slides to use as part of a light-box display that incorporated miniature copies of the portraits I produced earlier.
On display for my final show was a culmination of all the above: a pattern of photographs (of varying sizes to illustrate the diversity and unpredictability of a seemingly invisible illness), a light-box installation and a large format book.
About my artwork
Review by Alistair Robinson, Director, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art:
"Juliet Chenery-Robson’s project ‘Unpredictable Patterns’ reveals a series of portraits, and of details of lives lived in the shadow of Myalgic Encephalopathy, normally known as ME. The images present a group of individuals united by a condition rather than any usual social common denominator. Each portrait is of a single young woman in their own personal space, their bedroom, with their possessions enveloping them, but little clue as to their situation. Though all shot full-length, posed facing three-quarters, there is both a social and physiognomic diversity which acts as a ‘centrifugal’ force, requiring us to view each sitter on their own individual terms rather than focus on the series as a whole. But there is, perhaps, one commonality. The majority of the sitters have clustered objects of comfort and consolation around them, or have collected artefacts that carry connotations of childhood, and therefore the period prior to the onset of their illness. Childhood is, for many, a “place of sanctuary” in Chenery-Robson’s words: a place outside of time. The photographer’s other series of images focus upon symbolic details and are still lives, reflecting that the girls’ lives have become ‘stilled’, decelerated, and removed from the public sphere and confined to the private by their illness. Accordingly, the images are predominantly shot indoors, and concentrate upon details of the girls’ homes, or from the places of their treatment, or expand the series to include symbolic objects related to illness. A solitary glass of water, seen in front of flocked wallpaper, appears like a Morandi still life in which all is timeless, calm, as if outside of history. A Victorian phrenology head, delineating the different parts of the mind, has a cruelly ironic flavour, referring to the suspicion that the illness in question is ‘merely’ psychosomatic. In another image, a collection of butterflies, encased – trapped, even – in their individual boxes, provides a correlative for the collection of individuals represented here, each involuntarily entombed in their own rooms. Chenery-Robson intends our impressions to be contradictory, to be as lodged with problems as the medical profession’s is when dealing with her subjects. The compound idea transmitted is of lives continuing whilst suspended, spent in quiet incarceration. Here, the via contemplativa is enforced rather than willed."
Review by Matt Smith for Axis MAstars:
"The work that Juliet Chenery-Robson exhibited in the University of Sunderland’s MA Photography Degree Show 'Pleasures of the Imagination' consisted of a series of wall mounted photographic prints, a self-published hardbound book and a collection of slides displayed on a lightbox. These pieces, exhibited at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland, formed her project Unpredictable Patterns - a photographic exploration of the lives of a number of young women suffering from ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy). Predominantly still-lives, the wall-mounted photographs offered insightful evocations of the stilted physical and emotional states these women endure as a result of their condition. Her large hardbound book contained what was possibly the strongest element of the show: a series of portraits of the young women themselves. These intimate photographs were taken while the girls sat amongst their personal possessions in their respective bedrooms, presumably a place each has spent a great deal of time. Chenery-Robson’s exploitation of the photographic medium’s inherent ability to freeze the subject lent itself powerfully to the project’s assertions of immobility and stillness. This was in turn suggested by the ‘dust-gathering’ subject matter of many of the images. Overall this was an engaging, technically impressive and obviously passionately executed collection of work." (Matt Smith, 2009)
Art, Photography, Reading, Science, Travel, Socialising, Walking my two Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers