Passing fairBMJ 1995; 311 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.311.7003.517 (Published 19 August 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:517
- Jeremy Hugh Baron
Rites of Passage, the current major show at the Tate Gallery, “sets out in a ritualised way the artists' responses to true experiences of life at the close of the twentieth century.” Some of the 11 artists have biomedical connections. Like Delacroix and Gabo, Joseph Beuys (1921-86) never completed his medical studies but became a professor of monumental sculpture. Four other artists depict the body, its exterior and interior, composition and decomposition. Thus John Coplans shows 51 nude self-photographs, mostly of his external genitalia.
Mona Hatoum was born in 1952 in Beirut. There, from the balcony of her parents' flat, she used to spy on her neighbours with binoculars which she fantasised were magical, stripping the victims of their clothes, their skin, and their flesh. She studied in the Byam Shaw and Slade schools of art and teaches now at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris but keeps a studio in London. “Corps Etranger” (Foreign Body) is a white cylinder 3 metres in diameter and 3.5 metres high. Two woman-size slots allow the visitor to enter and stand against the black, cloth lined, inside wall around the perimeter of the floor, which is a screen for a continuous video of the artist's alimentary tract. Upper gastrointestinal endoscopy began with filled teeth, then a normal tongue, uvula, oesophagus, stomach, and duodenum. The pylorus was deformed, both on entry and withdrawal, suggesting previous juxtapyloric inflammation. Colonoscopy gave extended views of the perineal hair and anus with normal rectum and colon in a well prepared bowel. Heart sounds were much amplified, but blurred: I thought I heard a pansystolic murmur.
Hatoum has three themes. Two are not completely successful. Firstly, the relationship between mind and body did not seem to be systematically explored. Secondly, women are ambivalently conceived either as the passive victim of invasive maleness (science) or as a powerful creature (praying mantis) who engulfs the invader. But is endoscopy in women always performed by men? Possibly in France, but certainly not in Britain. But the third theme, “the contrast between classic ideals represented by the pure geometry and classical symmetry of the work's exterior and the real visual world of the body within” is an outstanding success.
Another room is also scientifically inspired. Hamad Butt (1962-94) was born in Lahore, took science “A” levels, and trained at Goldsmiths' School of Art. Three sets of six glass spheres containing chlorine gas are hung in a Newton's cradle, frustratingly untouchable. A wall ladder is the “santa scala,” a holy ladder to perfection, of the 16th century Abbot Crimacus of Venice. The rungs are glass cylinders containing iodine under vacuum (one of which leaked the purple gas and the fire brigade had to be called). Three slender steel tubes containing bromine curve from the floor and almost touch each other near the ceiling. His “Familiars” involve alchemy (a favourite of Marcel Duchamps) and its change of state; the halogen family; and sexual rapture (he had AIDS).
Louise Bourgeois was born and trained in Paris but is now a New Yorker. Her “Cells” installations signify both the biological cell and prison cell where one contemplates one's past. The two “Red Rooms” are her own bedroom as a child (innocence) and her parents' (carnality); a “Cell” contains clasped hands, and there is a pink marble bath filled with five pairs of latex breasts.
Finally, Pepe Espaliu was born in Cordoba and studied in Seville; his later work was influenced by his AIDS related illness, of which he died at the age of 38. His beautiful bird cages were originally installed in the arcade of a Madrid hospital. Their lack of floors shows emptiness and mortality, but fine steel wires trail elegantly to the ground, like spreading roots: images of freedom.
The exhibition is documented by an excellent fully illustrated catalogue by Stuart Morgan and Frances Morris and a crisp guide by Simon Wilson.—JEREMY HUGH BARON, consultant gastroenterologist, St Mary's Hospital, London