With only the afternoon left in Washington, I decide to cram everything I can into my last day, push through the tiredness and accept the inevitable energy crash later.
I dip into the National Gallery and the Hirshorn: I see Yves Klein on fuzzy black and white 1960s film, still dragging his naked-women paintbrushes across canvas on an endless loop. I get diverted by a room of Alexander Calder mobiles, exquisitely lit and spaced and find that an hour has gone by and I am still watching the shadows while I allow a dizzy spell to lift.
I take masses of photographs: steel, glass and concrete backdrops to 20th century giants, including a subtle portrait by Chuck Close, made entirely of fingerprints.
Everywhere there are fountains. Small ones to drink from and an amazing glass wall of shimmering water within the National Gallery.
Early evening, I cab to the ultimate monument, and symbol of human rights, The Lincoln Memorial. Despite the gigantic Abraham Lincoln statue (many times life-size) and its elevation high above the city, the effect of all that white stone is strangely cold.
Perhaps the whiteness only comes alive as the backdrop to larger events: it’s easy to visualise Martin Luther King’s speech to many thousands of freedom marchers packed along the length of the Mall; or Obama’s inauguration. So many Washington sites have a parallel life on film in a kind of collective newsreel.
Before leaving the next morning, I buy a Washington Post, (headlining with the BP oil spill) to get a last taste to take home.
In a few short days my central focus has been an exhibition exploring themes of disability, visibility, communication, politics and much else. Beyond this, I have tried to rely on my own instincts and impressions of the wider complex of Smithsonian galleries – and of Washington itself.
It seems to me that everything within ‘Revealing Culture’ has a clear connection with the complexities and contradictions of the wider world. If there is anything distinctive or ‘special’ about this work, it may be the intensity. None of it was ‘casually’ made. All the participants have an intimate knowledge of boundaries and restrictions. Art is so often about working within and pushing against limitations – some of them chosen by the artist – some of them imposed from outside.
Anne Teahan reflects on 'Revealing Culture' and differences between American and British thinking about Art & Disability.
On my last morning in Washington I meet Ellen Dorn, Director of Special exhibitions for the Smithsonian Institution. I will ask her how ‘Revealing Culture’ came about, and gain some understanding of the Smithsonian approach to Arts and Disability. I also hope to get a feel for the American approach to this territory. How will it compare with Britain?
The Smithsonian covers a huge complex of 19 museums and galleries spanning Art, Culture, Science, American History and much else. As though all the major museums and galleries in Britain were sited together under one banner.
I meet Ellen Dorn at the entrance to ‘Revealing Culture’, at the Ripley Centre, the Smithonian’s International Gallery. She is warm and welcoming and gives me an hour long interview.
I ask about the Smithsonian’s long-standing relationship with VSA, America’s largest organisation of Arts and Disability. She tells me how this has developed. It started seven years ago when the Smithsonian hosted VSA’s showcase exhibitions of young disabled artists. This has now expanded into an international festival of Disability Arts.
I ask Ellen about the word ‘special’ in her title, ‘Director of Special Exhibitions’. She explains that ‘special’ has nothing to do with disability. She works across the Smithsonian, and deals with exhibitions which are special in the sense that they don’t match the programmes of other subject specific galleries, such as the Air & Space Museum or the National Portrait Gallery. The Ripley Centre can be more diverse, flexible and international in the work they show and the proposals they accept. She talks with enthusiasm and pleasure about the success of ‘Revealing Culture’, and the richness and range of the artists’ work they have hosted as a result of the partnership with VSA .
I ask her about the Smithsonian approach to access. Ellen tells me that they have had an Office for Accessibility for the last 25 years, which covers all their galleries and museums. Both the Director and Assistant Director are wheelchair users, as are regular interns. Every building and exhibition is planned and designed according to ADA rules (the Americans with Disabilities Act). This also applies to touring exhibitions. Each venue is vetted and approved in relation to ADA. Accessibility is therefore hard-wired into the practical organisation of the Smithsonian.
The interview prompts many thoughts and questions about the cultural differences between America and Britain. My impression is that Accessibility here is about practical access and making sure it is done really well and applied universally throughout the Smithsonian.
Access is not, however, described in terms of disability rights. The ‘Revealing Culture’ catalogue is scholarly, and beautifully written by curator Leanne Mella. The exhibition website, presentation and audio descriptions are excellent. But on Disability and access, the catalogue is cautiously respectful, with a section on how not to offend people with disabilities by use of inappropriate terminology.
On a thoroughly Disability-led British forum such as DAO, this might attract a satirical response or a Crippen cartoon. I can't imagine a Shape exhibition catalogue with an instructional approach to language. But are Shape exhibitions mostly seen by a disabled and disability-aware audience? - This VSA exhibition occupies a mainstream space, so VSA perhaps aims at a broader, and potentially less aware audience.
But the relationship between VSA and the Smithsonian is a very fruitful one. The Smithsonian sits at the apex of American cultural life, and this is surely a declaration that the artists they showcase should not be considered marginalised or outside the flow of contemporary creativity and thought. Furthermore the exhibition is architect designed by award winning Michael Graves (himself a wheelchair user) and one of the four eminent curators includes a Smithsonian Gallery curator.
And VSA have managed, through philanthropy as well as federal funding to co-host an international festival of disability arts within the Kennedy Centre and a Smithsonian Gallery. A British equivalent, might be a festival shared by both the Tate and the Barbican Hall simultaneously.
I suppose many things boil down to money – and here in Washington DC there’s evidence of another huge cultural difference. After the interview, I visit the Smithsonian tourist centre. Set apart from the maps and souvenirs and miniature model of the Smithsonian buildings, are two dedicated spaces, like little side-chapels, where the names of donors – either wealthy individuals, or huge multi-nationals like Shell or Apple, are engraved on glass panels, framed in rows and columns. The wealthy are happy to be immortalised as ‘Distinguished Benefactors’.
In Britain, the wealthy don't seem to be lining up to be associated with culture and philanthropy, in such large numbers. British sponsors appear to be either a footnote next to the Arts Council logo, or they get top billing above the art.
Rupert Murdoch sponsoring Oxford University, caused outrage. And of course there’s the ‘BP Portrait Award’ which now has associations with oil leaks. Perhaps if they were just one among many names, it might reduce the contamination.
But there's an uncomfortable connection between charity and disability history in Britain, which might leak into the idea of philanthropy. At least Arts Council money is public and therefore collectively everyone's – but there doesn't seem to be quite enough of it.
Anne Teahan explores the work of Washington-based artist Gwynneth VanLaven in Revealing Culture at the Smithsonian and interviews her about waiting rooms and ‘Wellness’
Gwynneth VanLaven’s installation ‘Please Wait’, in ‘Revealing Culture’ is deceptive. From a distance, it looks like a nice little space in the middle of the exhibition, where the tired visitor can sit down and rest.
Inside, you find yourself in a waiting room – but not some well-used NHS space where people have paced and fretted. This one is pristine with pure white walls, three identical chairs, a square coffee table (with no rings) and an unworn carpet. This could be a room from a furniture catalogue. Two neatly framed photos on the wall show pictures of other waiting rooms.
But once seated, you realise that this space is not so neutral after all. On the opposite wall a flat screen runs a film called ’13 Swallows’. A young woman raises a glass of water to her moistened lips and washes down a series of pink, white and purple pills one by one. Her ritual is repeated many times. Sometimes we see through the base of the raised glass up to the face of the swallowing girl. Each round is punctuated by rhythmic sounds: the glug of poured water followed by a gulp. And not for the first time in this hot city, with my unquenchable thirst and dry throat, I am tantalised by the sound and sparkle of water.
In one corner of the waiting room, sits a curious object, half pot-plant, half lamp. On closer inspection I see plastic pill-bottles, placed round the plant like Christmas-tree lights; each one has a tiny label with an intriguing array of names, all of which are variations on the artist’s.
As I sit in VanLaven’s waiting room, I wonder about the nature and function of her space. Am I waiting for a psychiatrist or a physician? Do I wait in hope or anxiety? Have I come for investigation, for routine chemical maintenance or emotional adjustment? And after consulting the unnamed doctor or specialist, will I take my pills and feel as neutral and untroubled as the bland white walls?
As the swallowing of pills proceeds on screen, I examine a remarkable book which sits on the coffee table in place of the usual lifestyle magazines. Like a children’s game of consequences, each page is sliced into three flaps which you can mix and match. On the left hand side, text describes episodes from the artist’s early life: on the right, images of the artist’s face make varied expressions. The visitor can play with the pages to create new meanings and facial expressions: some baffling, some highly comic. This Waiting Room seems to merge childhood and adult experience.
Gwynneth VanLaven is a 30 yr old artist, based near Washington. We meet at the Smithsonian’s Ripley Gallery and settle down together inside her installation, which turns out to be the perfect interview space – we have comfy chairs, the quiet of the gallery and we are enclosed by her work.
Gwynneth gives a fascinating hour long interview (to be published later this year on DAO). My questions, on the relationship between Disability and her Art, lead us to explore the twin themes of ‘Illness’ and ‘Wellness’ which run through her work. Her Revealing Culture catalogue statement, perfectly describes how medical autobiography and political critique are embedded in her ‘Please Wait’ installation:
‘I have spent so many years in waiting rooms being ‘patient’, hoping for answers, waiting for the Wizard of Oz to complete me. I waited for health, feeling deficient in the face of glossy, idyllic images of wellness drawn from our market-driven culture. Through the installation of a waiting room, I hope to reveal something about the culture of wellness, medical authority, the way we perform as patients, and how seemingly innocuous spaces can become charged with memory and emotion.’
Advertising – especially of pharmaceuticals - and the way it feeds on false and idealised images of health and perfection is a key theme in Gwyneth’s Art.
For me the interview confirms a recurrent message of this Disability Arts exhibition: that artists who tackle the complex difficulties of overcoming barriers and managing the effects of impairment, will often have a deeper, sharper take on universal themes. The humour and bitter-sweet irony which runs through Gwynneth’s work, is nourished by real and raw experience.
In her own words: ‘In my work, I hope to complicate what has become flat, to flesh out experience with a dose of reality…’
Interview to be published as part of ‘Sharing Cultures:Disability and Visiblity’ on DAO this year.
Anne Teahan reflects on a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and finds common themes in ‘Revealing Culture’ the Disability Arts exhibition at the Smithsonian
One of my aims in visiting ‘Revealing Culture’ in Washington is to see how the art relates to surrounding mainstream spaces.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum is purpose-built. From outside, the white stone façade echoes the nearby Washington monuments and Smithsonian Galleries. The arched entrance has a feeling of permanence, weight and solidity. But inside, everything changes … The entrance or Hall of Witness combines glass, metal and stone. Colours are grim and industrial. Floor and ceiling are sloped and sliced into diagonals, as though gravity has shifted.
I think of Loretta Bebeau’s ‘Jibberish’ in ‘Revealing Culture’. Her grey-metallic squares are intersected by diagonals and fragments of words and letters. The Museum seems to carry embedded messages and anxious architectural references.
We wait for timed entry to the main exhibition and I wonder about the experience ahead. Liz Crow’s film ‘Resistance’ describing the Nazi T4 euthanasia programme, is still fresh in my mind. And my friend Sue is Jewish. She explains that however harrowing it may be, for her, this museum and the presence of so many visitors including children, is a reassurance.
We travel by lift to the upper floor and the journey through recent history begins. A gigantic photograph from 1945 shows the first shock of discovery when allied forces opened the camps to reveal genocide. The rest of the exhibition tracks the events which lead there through a timeline of photographs, personal artefacts and archival film of anti-Jewish propaganda. The narrative reaches the inevitable conclusion in stages. However familiar, each stage remains shocking.
And the building itself echoes these stages. Repetitious structures embody the idea of processing, with tunnels and towers, and factory-like features. As visitors, we start to feel that we ourselves are being primed and processed. I think of Sunaura Taylor’s ‘Chicken Truck’ paintings in Revealing Culture, showing parallel rows of boxed-in hens.
The Museum also documents the de-humanisation of non-Jewish groups: Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Communists and Roma. The Disabled were the first to be systematically destroyed as children in institutions and then as adults. Here in the Holocaust Museum we see their faces, photographed as medical specimens, counted and categorised as ‘people unworthy of life’.
Throughout this journey, there are numerous cross-connections with the work of contemporary artists in Revealing Culture prompting links between past and present which are both encouraging and disturbing. Encouraging, because the targeted victims of the past are now behind the camera directing the narrative and discussing their roles as actors. This happens in Liz Crow’s film ‘Conversation’ - a companion to ‘Resistance’ exploring individual stories of disability and euthanasia.
Artists are also satirising contemporary notions of bodily perfection and ideal health; of being on the receiving end of medical and pharmaceutical interventions. Gwyneth Van Laven’s installation ‘Waiting Room’ explores the unease of undergoing medical processing and the chillingly neutralised appearance of doctor’s waiting rooms.
Ju Gosling’s ‘Abnormal’ project explores human characteristics in relation to genetic coding with its potential for sifting out ‘abnormal’ traits. Her print ‘Abnormal 2 ’ exposes the absurdities of human and medical categories with a trail of identifying labels, starting with ‘Female’ and finishing via ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Kyphoscoliotic’ with ‘Abnormal’. In the fascist past, ‘Aryan’ was the perfect category; survival meant concealment of race, impairment or sexuality. Ju’s work prompts questions about contemporary ideas of perfection. What makes us worthy of life now?
The Holocaust Museum shows how ideas can so easily and rapidly become embedded in a whole culture. Are there things today that we just don’t see because they are so embedded in our media environment? The exhibition documents how repetitious propaganda and the language of hatred helped facilitate euthanasia on an industrial scale, starting with the Disabled.
In Britain today, language is different: public broadcasters cannot incite hatred on grounds of disability, race, age or sexuality. The mainstream Euthanasia debate uses language of love, care, and medical compassion. Are we therefore kinder, gentler, less prejudiced, and safer now? We know how to sound it.
I think of Janet Morrow’s spectacular cake sculptures in Revealing Culture. Her ‘Pharmacake’ looks so sweet and comforting till you get close and discover that some of the tiny decorations are lethal. At closing time, on the way out, we pass a large, bare room with a single burning candle. The Hall of Remembrance, a space without images, invites contemplation, prayer or meditation for people of all religions and none.
As we share our reactions, Sue explains how her Jewishness means that the Holocaust is never safely relegated to the past; for her, it remains a reference point which signals ‘Danger’ whenever ideas of ‘Us and Them’ emerge in contemporary life.
Outside the oppressive heat has turned to heavy rain. There is a sense of relief and of a city cooling down. Later on, as the shadows lengthen, we go to see the White House for Sue’s last Washington evening. We photograph each other outside the railings. There is speculation among a group of tourists: are the Obamas at home? We peer through the bars. Are they peering back out at us? And how reassuring to think they might be.
Loretta Bebeau www.mnartists.org and www.local-artist-interviews.com (interview)
Liz Crow: www.roaring-girl.com/productions
Sunaura Taylor sunaurataylor.org
Gwynneth Van Laven www.gwynneth.vanlaven.net/
Ju Gosling www.ju90.co.uk/
Janet Morrow www.defcakelady.com
Sue and I are standing inside the Hall of Nations entrance to the Kennedy Center, looking up. High above our heads hang parallel rows of national flags; under our feet a long red carpet recedes into a distant vanishing point. Is there a throne somewhere at the end?
I have come to interview Washington-based artist Michelle Lisa Herman, who works here for ArtsEdge as a media designer. But Sue and I are early and have a little time to explore the building. There is hardly anyone else around: the security lady, some catering staff, but no other visitors yet.
I think about equivalent spaces in London and how the Barbican, also huge, seems cluttered in comparison. Even Tate Modern’s gigantic Turbine Hall, with its grand industrial past, keeps clear of overt expressions of national pride. Banners outside, but flags inside? Never, except as an ironic part of an artwork.
So here we are in the Hall of Nations, two London visitors, awestruck and out-scaled by American confidence.
With a spare half hour, we take the lift to the roof terrace to see a stunning, panoramic view of the Washington skyline. We only have a few days. From here we can at least admire from a distance what we won’t have time to experience directly. The city is full of memorials and monuments in all forms: white stone domes and columns emerge from green spaces below.
And in the middle of the Potomec River which runs alongside the Kennedy Centre, a dense area of greenery turns out to be a conservation area and island memorial to the 26th US President who loved natural history. And somewhere out there, much further down river according to my map - is the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial. My guidebook calls it a ‘focus for activists for disabled citizens’.
But my research has turned up a more complex story about the difference between ‘for' and ‘of’. Fifty years after his death, a proposed statue of President Roosevelt became a symbol of disability politics and fierce argument: should his wheelchair be represented? He himself, in the 1940s, concealed it. So out there, among all the Washington memorials and monuments, there are now two statues – one concealing and one revealing the wheelchair of the 32nd US president. If I had a few more days here and a little more energy, I would visit the memorial and follow the story through…
After the roof terrace, I return to the Hall of Nations to meet and interview artist Michelle Lisa Herman. Her multi-media installation for the ‘Revealing Culture’ exhibition remains fresh in my mind. Her installation is magical: A semi-darkened space merges scientific equipment (test tubes, petri dishes, microscopes) with the visual delight of coloured lights and liquids. And a filmed projection shows a unique kind of action painting: ink drops on water, bleed and spread, like a magnified cellular growth.
Michelle is the first artist I interview for my ‘Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility’ project and I am a little nervous: will the technology work – (a tiny digital voice recorder) and will my voice work well enough to be understood both during the interview and afterwards? And most importantly, will she feel comfortable with my questions and happy to expand and develop her thoughts? My project aims to understand how artists see their practice in relation to their disability and how British and American approaches compare.
Michelle is very positive and clear in discussing her work and ambitions for its development. She describes how disability acts as a creative inspiration and drive. I am completely engrossed by the interview. We cover many areas and questions which will be further explored as my project develops. But one particular idea surfaces above all others.
Michelle talks about EEC (Ectrodactyl Ectodermal Dysplasia & Cleft Palate Syndrome) a systemic condition she has managed since birth, which has had a complex effect on all aspects of her life. EEC is the result of a rare genetic mutation. For Michelle, a chance cellular event has determined the shape of her life and her art. So Michelle’s artistic take on the role of 'chance', has a profound resonance that other artists – who have never had cause to consider their existence in this way – may lack.
And this conversation clarifies something for me about Art and Disability in general. It strikes me that the concept of Disability Arts just doesn’t feel quite right here. Art is not an exclusive ghetto. It deals with universals, and it's because of disability that Michelle's artistic exploration of Chance has universal resonance.
Disability may fuel Art in all sorts of ways (as a powerful drive, as subject matter, as a way of slicing mainstream clichés) but Art will be the outcome: sometimes ‘Disability Art’, sometimes just Art. At least that’s my thought for today, but I may think differently by the end of the project…..
After an hour or so we finish. I feel very lucky. I have been given some digital gold dust. And with 'chance' in mind (this trip has been full of mishaps) I check and double-check that my digital recorder plays; I check I can unravel every spoken word, including my own whispers and vocal spasms, and I make sure there is no possible chance of pressing Erase by accident.
For more of Michelle’s work visit www.michellelisaherman.com/
Anne Teahan further reflects on work in VSA’s ‘Revealing Culture’ at the Smithsonian’s Ripley Gallery in Washington DC and finds contrasting approaches to themes of Art, Disability and the Body in artists’ films
Another Washington morning – hot and humid. I have been resting my voice (which really means avoiding people) for a couple of days. And voice-rest is a mixed blessing. When dryness and Laryngeal Dystonia are at their worst, every spoken word is a strain, and silence offers relief. However it doesn’t take long for a kind of isolation to set in and the desire to communicate becomes intense.
So I am doubly pleased that my friend Sue has at last made it through all the security checks and passport processing which blocked her entry to the US. For her, an ordeal is over; for me there is the opportunity to share experiences and dig deeper into the Art.
We spend our morning in the Smithsonian’s International Gallery. Once again we are both impressed by the level of care and attention in the exhibition design and construction. Once again I find myself wondering about it: in addition to the white fabric background which cloaks the entire space, a white platform runs a few inches above floor-level, so that the exhibition is elevated above a strip of light. Outside, the city is full of elevations: pedestals, platforms, plinths and flags which are all waiting to be looked up to. The Washington monument pierces the sky. Perhaps in a culture of elevation, raising the work of disabled artists a few inches above ground level is a modest variation on the theme. Is elevation a form of praise? A way of saying these artists are especially remarkable?
Or perhaps it is simply an aesthetic decision and I am thinking too hard about it. So I put aside this small feeling of unease and turn my attention back to the Art. This morning I will focus on the slim white screen (trimmed in white fabric like the rest of the exhibition) showing artists’ films. There are eight films. They range from the magical to the war torn. (All films can be accessed on the link below this article)
Jeff Nelson’s playful animation explores the magic of pop-up books. And in ‘The Nest, William A Newman’s concealed camera films baby birds close up. In Mary Lucier’s film ‘ Portrait: John Lado Keni’ the Sudanese refugee of the title, deaf since birth, describes the trauma of escape through non-verbal sounds, gestures and eye contact.
The Body in Motion is common to three other artists: Bill Shannon, aka the ‘Crutchmaster’ turns his Disability into a dynamic form of locomotion. His screen divides into multiple sections, each one tracking a precarious journey through urban spaces on crutches.
Three video artists are British. In the exquisitely crafted ‘Motion Disabled’ Simon McKeown animates individual solutions to everyday manoeuvres and rituals such as taking a shower or using a wheelchair.
In Sophie Khan’s mysterious ‘Body Traces’ a dancer’s body, on the cusp of visibility, emerges from deep space. Her images remind me of medical scans searching for hidden forms. There is no overt reference to Disability within her work or catalogue notes.
Liz Crow’s film ‘Resistance’ tackles Disability and history directly. She deals with themes of concealment, complicity and desperation through a narrative of real and harrowing events described on her Roaring Girl Productions website. ‘Resistance’ lasts 12 minutes. It is bleak, stark and almost unbearable to watch. Cool colours remain in the memory: purples, blues and acid pinks.
As we leave the gallery and discuss the film I realise that this is the very first time I have seen a Holocaust event from a Disability point of view. Elsewhere, it always seems to be described from the outside. Usually with ‘Us’ in the present documenting what was done to ‘Them’ in the past. I wonder why it feels so completely contemporary, despite being rooted in 1939. I think of current debates on euthanasia, always couched in the language of caring and compassion. Has language become a form of camouflage? Is there a hidden ‘Us and Them’ right now?
Outside the gallery the Washington sky is bright blue and the sun beats down. We visit the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Park a short walk along the National Mall where each Smithsonian Museum building is connected by lush, lovingly-attended gardens. The sculptures are perfectly sited in relation to lawns, benches, pathways and each other. Once again the Body is frequently represented: Rodin’s standing sculpture celebrates muscular strength and energy.
The outdoor Smithsonian spaces with gigantic sculpture and architecture, are the embodiment of scale, confidence and a kind of idealism about public art. And the Hirshhorn Museum has its own gigantic fountain - as tall and confident as the architecture. I crane my neck in an effort to photograph the summit. And being in a state of almost continuous thirst and dryness, I am tantalised by such an explosion of water.
Follow the link on the VSA website to see all the artists’ films.
Anne Teahan begins the task of reflection on the idea of a 'disability aesethetic' from her first visit to 'Revealing Culture' at the Smithsonian Institute
The Smithsonian’s International gallery is a surprise. Above ground it looks like an elegant version of the kiosks on the National Mall. But most of the building exists underground. The visible part is merely an entrance area. To find ‘Revealing Culture’ I must take the lift 3 floors down into the earth and follow the signs through an eclectic mix of exhibitions ranging from contemporary prints to children’s paintings from Haitian earthquake survivors.
The question I have carried here from London, is ‘What if anything, connects works by artists with Disabilities?’ This can be simplified into a cruder one: ‘Is there such a thing as a Disability Aesthetic?’ If there is one I should see it here.
When I track down the red ‘Revealing Culture’ banner, I have the immediate shock of seeing my own work, beside the entrance. My six pieces, five of them fragile paper sculptures, have survived the unlikely journey from Tottenham studio beside Spurs football ground, to Washington DC. Materially they are paper and air. Formally they are hollow castings from shoes and vessels, made of torn printed drawings, mounted in perspex cubes.
Installed against a clear white ground they are evenly spaced and sensitively lit to reveal the shadow drawings which echo their 3 dimensional form. I am relieved. A chain of art-handlers have taken ‘Fragile’ seriously. And VSA Arts have provided the optimum space and light.
And this relief frees me to focus on the other 54 artists and the exhibition as a whole. My Arts Council proposal promised a year’s worth of research, exploring the territory where Art and Disability meet and where American and British cultural approaches may diverge. It is easy to promise all sorts of things when typing to a deadline.
So where do I start? I do my deliberate first step, applied to all exhibitions, in all circumstances. I don’t read anything – not the catalogue, not the notices by the works, not the names... no leaden concepts, or illuminating explanations – just first impressions.
The exhibition is extensive. There are so many different visual and physical languages sharing a space: painting, knitted sculpture, video, photography, sculpture, assemblages, installations include: doctors’ waiting room; scientific laboratory; remembered schoolrooms; the documentation of performance... And the diversity is both a strength and a problem – 55 artists’ voices in the same space.
The design solution to this is striking. The entire space has been cloaked in pleated white fabric, with a slim slither of light at floor-level. Work that would be wall-hung in another gallery, is suspended against whiteness. The pleats are rounded rather than creased; no sharp edges or corners – the fabric wall curves.
The soft whiteness means that the sharpest visual focus is on the work itself, so the originality of design is aimed at supporting (and not drowning) the work.
I feel that each artist’s work has been cherished, or even treated with a kind of reverence. The fabric has an other-worldly feel; reminding me of white folds stretched across an altar, or solidified in religious statues and the floor-light gives the work a divine lift. Is there something ‘special’ about the work by virtue of the fact that the artists are disabled? Is there a religious sensibility at work? I am troubled by the feeling of an idealised space.
Perhaps this unease is influenced by tiredness; perhaps I am seeing a difference of culture: like many British artists, I have sometimes exhibited in less than ideal curatorial situations; here there is complete consideration and care. The lighting is subtly adjusted to accommodate the varying needs of video, lightbox, sculpture and raw painting at both floor level and above the work.
On VSA’s website (the American disability arts organisation) the exhibition is promoted as part of a Disability Arts Festival and the language is celebratory. Perhaps this is a Disability Proud and Positive kind of approach. In Britain, on DAO, language is perhaps more grounded in the sometimes frustrating and angry experience of disability itself. So I am both impressed and uncomfortable at the same time and realise that my contrary reactions will have to be unravelled later.
I shift my focus from the setting to the art. And despite the enormous diversity - some strands and connections start to emerge. Themes of internal spaces, absence and transparency take many forms: work using x-ray photographs, empty gloves, empty paper shoes and dresses. There is a strong awareness of an internal life, and the penetration of external appearances and surfaces.
The Body is often referenced: through humour, irony, science, clothing … and not much religion. The sensation of Touch is often implied, with accessible mini- samples of work to invite contact. And this tactile focus is aimed at the visitor to the gallery as well as being implied by the material nature of much of the work.
And so I start to photograph each artist’s work, still resisting written explanations – and among the diversity, certain works surface and remain in the memory when I leave.
In particular, the image of an oil painting remains vivid despite the first hit of the afternoon heat. The artist represents horizontal layers of hens in batteries, at larger than life-size set against deep black space. It is ambitious in scale, and manages to be both illusionistic and painterly. She prompts feelings and thoughts of human and animal confinement and ordering. And her boxed-in hens offer a powerful start to a year of research and sharing artists’ work.
To view Sunaura Taylor’s ‘Chicken Truck (oil on canvas 80x120x2 ins) go to the artists' website
To view a slideshow of images of the entire Revealing Culture exhibition go to VSA’s website
This is my first Washington morning. I am almost comatose from travel but excited at the prospect of seeing the Smithsonian. This morning I will make my first visit to ‘Revealing Culture’ in their International Gallery with a rare opportunity for immersion in the work of 54 artists, all of them exploring the experience of disability. I will see my own work in this context and the exhibition within the vast 19-gallery Smithsonian complex.
But a series of obstacles are slowing me down. In a small, sunny breakfast room, I am experiencing the Sjogren’s effect – a dry fogginess, like an (unearned) hangover, clogs up my thinking. I wrestle with a bagel and a huge and complex toaster with too many controls and options. The lady on the morning shift is entranced by the Spanish-dubbed cartoons on a huge flat screen TV. She interrupts her pleasure to work the toaster, points out the three carbohydrate options, (bagels, bread or cereal) then returns to the cartoon action.
I hope the sugar and caffeine will break through the mist. I can only concentrate on one task at a time: sorting a metro card, checking my charged-up camera, eye lotions, bottles of water… (I hear it is 95 degrees outside and I fear dehydration).
It takes most of the morning and a few unsuccessful attempts to leave for the Smithsonian. The cartoon lady, determined to get me outside once and for all, lends me what turns out to be an uncloseable umbrella as the humid weather explodes into a thunderstorm and torrential rain. I get so far, the rain subsides, like the toaster the umbrella is too large to be managed, and I return one last time to dump it.
I am determined to experience the Metro and get the feel of the city. The Washington streets are laid out like a geometric drawing: alphabetically from North to South and numerically from east to west. The elegant houses and avenues appear almost empty. Has everyone left to escape the heat?
The Metro is dimly lit, beautifully and starkly constructed – and air conditioned. Adverts are sparse and appear to be restricted to health, education or culture.
But just like London, there are delays – a few stops and one change turn into a long, exhausting and over-crowded journey. Travellers say ‘this is always happening’ - but the squeeze is less tense and impatient than in London.
The Smithsonian has its own Metro and above ground is the National Mall. My map shows I have surfaced toward the Western side of a long green rectangle surrounded by Smithsonian galleries and museums with landmarks at either end: the Washington Monument, a stark stone obelisque surrounded by US flags is close to the west, and the Capitol building - domed and white - sits somewhere at the opposite end. And straight north from the Monument is the White House.
So American art, history, politics and monumental icons of national pride are all connected to this gigantic stretch of grass. And I have a few hot days to sample it, if the Sjogren’s fog allows.
And close by the Metro sits The Ripley Centre – the Smithsonian’s International Gallery. Outside hangs a huge banner headed ‘Revealing Culture’ with images of all 55 exhibiting artists’ work, squared and lined up, including my own fragmented paper teacup.
I need to stop somewhere, rest and deal with the heat before I go in to see the exhibition. I buy a three-dollar hot dog from a kiosk and find a patch of grass and shade. My vision has a dry, dull edge – but eye-drops temporarily restore the full gleam of reality.
I spend an hour watching the grassy space under the heat where something temporary and tented is in the process of being dismantled – half-mast banners suggest the remains of a folk life festival. It looks like home-grown produce has been sold or celebrated and is now gone; and this is a relief from the orderly geometry of the map and the rigid row of flags around the Washington Monument. And the occasional kiosk gives the feeling of Sundays in the park.
Anne Teahan gives an account of her journey through US customs on the way to the Smithonian Institute, Washington DC
I have never been to America before. I am in a stationary queue at Charlotte Carolina airport, somewhere in-between planes and layers of security, waiting to be processed. One official looks stern and disapproving; she patrols the queue; she inspects us all. She is unimpressed.
Another official walks alongside the queue and says ‘Hi, welcome to Charlotte and where’re you from?’ to every single passenger in turn. In a friendly but efficient way he conducts a high-speed mini-interview, to establish whether we have visas or need some other document. I feel a slight panic as though I am trapped in a quiz show, and having lost my voice, cannot participate properly. And I am so tired I can barely remember where I come from, and just manage to croak ‘London’. I have my precious visa-waiver number scribbled on a scrap of paper which I offer to avoid the effort of further speech.
I also have to squeeze drops into my drying eyes as we wait. My eye lotion comes in tiny plastic capsules. I have worried throughout the journey – would they cause a security alert when I hold one up to the light to tip the liquid out? Would the stash in my case be confiscated? A week without hydration is unthinkable and so I exaggerate their use, to prove this is a regular, harmless ritual.
And then we all have to fill out a densely worded form with tiny print promising that we will not import noxious or toxic or explosive substances into the United States. Again I find myself wishing my treatments looked less incendiary.
And while we wait I see my first American film while in America – on a large flat screen elevated above the queue is a ‘Welcome to America’ set to music. The camera pans across images of lush landscape, deserts, canyons, and gleaming buildings including the White House. Then it zooms in closer to show sample Americans: old and young, every ethnic group and culture and perhaps one American in a wheelchair. All are assembled for the film and they are smiling at the camera. They have beautiful teeth, unblemished skin – and are glowing with health. Happily they welcome us all and our baggage, to America. And the music climaxes. By the time my queue is ready to move I know the sequence by heart. I am very tired. I hope I look healthy enough to be allowed in.
But there are no further long delays – I get through fingerprinting, have my eye photographed; I am asked the purpose of my visit: ‘to see artwork in the Smithsonian’, turns out to be the right answer.
And a couple of hours later, my first impressions of Washington through a cab window are of scale, dazzling light and an enveloping heat. Pure white monuments and domes emerge from the distance; I have never seen them before, and yet they look familiar as background to news items on Obama or Frank Capra films. But without music.
By the time I reach the hostel at Dupont Circus, I know by text that my friend Sue, turned back at Gatwick, has a replacement digital passport and will be travelling on tomorrow. And my first night in a twin room in a Washington hostel is not like the sodden youth hostels I remember in Britain. No bunk beds, or curfews.
And yet another huge TV screen, this time above my bed, reveals a mix of local and national news stations, some Spanish, some English speaking. Stories vary from human to animal and individual to political: marine specialists rescuing turtles caked in BP oil and tenderly revived; a man tells how a bear’s nocturnal visit to his house caused fear but not panic, so the bear left without being shot; an undercover arts-theft detective retires and blows his cover publishing stories of stolen Picassos; a local politician is interviewed about Obama’s health reforms and wearily defends them…
Although this is the start of a year-long Art research project, I have only a few days in Washington, so I must make the most of my very compressed first impressions.
And the channel-flicking shows that although this is the world’s most powerful capital, Washington is just as local as everywhere else. And the bed is comfortable, the air conditioning loud, and the sheets are crisp.
Anne Teahan describes her preparations for visiting the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC in summer 2010
In April 2010, I started tackling an Arts Council application on ‘Revealing Culture’ an international disability arts exhibition on show at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington DC from 8 June - 29 August 2010. I had work accepted along with 54 other artists.
I aimed to turn the experience into a research project for DAO, but there were many obstacles between me and my desired goal. Globally – there was volcanic ash, nationally there were strikes at airports, at home, there were mountains of Arts Council guidance notes to digest, and physically, two conditions (Laryngeal Dystonia and Sjogren’s Syndrome, an energy-sapping auto-immune nuisance) were taking their toll.
And yet it is 9 July and I find myself on an US Airways plane, bound for Washington, with three interviews planned, two with Washington artists and one with a Smithsonian director of exhibitions.
But the seat next to me is empty; Sue my friend, fellow artist, co-conspirator and support for three of my days in Washington has been turned back at Gatwick. Her passport which has 2 years to run and worked perfectly well in Europe, has been rejected by US Airways who turned digital after hers was issued. No amount of pleading with officials has made any difference. I’m on the plane to Washington – she has been sent back with heavy cases and heart, to queue for another passport.
In addition, my voice has run right down and I need to top up my empty water bottle (Sjogren’s Syndrome dehydrates - you have to keep watering yourself: eyes, throat, mouth). I feel like a plant in a desert; I try to ask for help from a stewardess who looks chillingly like Sarah Palin. She can’t understand me and is clearly irritated by the effort. I point to my throat as I struggle to speak. But she is resolute; she insists I speak up; I know I cannot compete with the loud background rumble of the plane but I try anyway.
Laryngeal Dystonia is a voice-throttling condition, with a will of its own. If you try to force volume into a tired, dry voice, the vocal cord spasms will sabotage your speech. So I launch a sentence which has little chance of being delivered in one piece. I intend to say ‘my voice doesn’t work properly so be patient’ – my lips move, but only one word, ‘Voice’, lands loud and clear. The resonance contradicts my mime of voice loss. ‘I heard that !’ she declares triumphantly, vindicated in her disapproval. Perhaps she thinks I am attention-seeking. Perhaps she thinks weak speech denotes weakness of character.
And so I am strapped into my seat on a crowded plane, avoiding asking for water top-ups from a flight attendant with a loud, healthy voice. But I am on my way to Washington, I have a camera and charger, a recorder with plentiful batteries and I’m looking forward to exploring the work of 54 artists at the Smithsonian’s International Gallery. I just have to endure the journey.
And I manage to catch the attention of another air steward who makes no vocal demands and has no problem providing me with water. I drift off to sleep dreaming about Little Britain – only the man in the wheelchair can’t get out.
To see some example of Anne Teahan's work on DAO go to the Tales from the Boarders gallery.