Making a difference, from Dutch to DaDa
We Are For You Because We Are Against Them by Noëmi Lakmaier, an artist who has previously won Fire Station's Studio Award for an artist with a disability
When it comes to creating art, is there any reason for treating those with disabilities differently?
What is normal? And who decides? Whether the idea is derived from averages, medians, or scientific, physical and practical tests, the truth is there is no such thing. So if normal doesn’t exist, what does it mean to be able and, by extension, disabled?
Perfect and normal are slippery concepts. So against which type should we measure ourselves? Exploring these ideas is not to trivialise the larger obstacles that those with more serious health and mobility issues, whether mental or physical, must overcome; but by broadening the idea of what is not normal, everyone becomes implicated in the conversation about how society enables and values individuals.
Niet Normaal: Difference on Display, a major exhibition that took place in Amsterdam in 2010, and again in Liverpool last year, explored such themes through the work of artists including Marlene Dumas, Mat Fraser, Louise Bourgeois, Emery Blackwell and Damien Hirst. Garry Robson is one of the exhibition’s curators in Liverpool. He saw Niet Normaal, which translates as “not normal” but is also a Dutch slang term for “cool” or “far out”, in Amsterdam. At the time he was programming Liverpool’s DaDaFest, a festival of disability and deaf arts, which had begun as a “disability arts festival” geared towards disabled people. “It was a niche festival. I wanted to make it a festival of art, putting the art first.”
DaDaFest encourages visitors to question their world view, and Robson suggests that we look at the definitions people bandy around such as disabled or normal. “I may use a wheelchair to get around, but what does that mean? It gives me my unique perspective, but the things that have happened to you in your life give you yours,” he says.
The best art comes from personal experience, but also transcends that, to be about wider truths. Take the work of Corban Walker; his sculptures deal with balance, scale, structure and spatial relationships. Walker, who represented Ireland at the 2011 Venice Biennale, is four feet tall. His work stems from his world view and at its best, it offers a universal sense of being out of scale, and often out of kilter, with the world.
One of the problems when it comes to disability art is that if it has come out of protest movements, or has been a celebration of disability culture, it can become ghettoised. It’s like early feminism, black activism, gay rights: people band together to make their voices heard, but unless the discussions enter the mainstream, it can ultimately become limiting.
Another difficulty with mainstreaming art like this is language. When looking at art and trying to place it in a context to better understand it, a range of questions arise. When it comes to an artist with a disability, there can be a diffidence about making that approach, whether the fear is of giving offence or of provoking anger.