Making a difference, from Dutch to DaDa


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.

“Non-disabled people are terrified of not getting the disability language right,” says Pádraig Naughton, the director of Arts and Disability Ireland (ADI). “Additionally in the arts, people are often afraid to write objective articles that critique work by artists with disabilities or companies. Internationally, this has been one of the most significant issues holding development back because artists and companies are working in a vacuum of critical engagement from their non-disabled peers.”

One way to break down these barriers is to develop the idea, pursued by Niet Normaal (which Naughton hopes to bring to Ireland in some form), that we are all differently abled and that we disable ourselves in various ways by not fully exploring what it means to be different. As advances in genetics, surgery and cosmetics push the developed world’s populations towards ever more defined ideas of perfection, the vulnerable and the young disable themselves through anorexia, body dysmorphia and distorted ideas of success.

The flip side of our social notions of meritocracy mean that, insidiously, health and beauty are seen as attainments, deserving of reward, whereas those who fall short are somehow blameworthy.

The Fire Station Artists’ Studios has offered an accessible studio in its Dublin complex for a number of years, and for the past four it has worked with ADI to develop the Studio Award, a workspace that has been given, together with a bursary, to an artist with a disability. Recipients Noëmi Lakmaier (Austria), Anna Berndtson (Sweden), Ruth Le Gear (Ireland) and Hugh O’Donnell (Ireland) are at a seminar called Difference, Not Different: The Pathways to Practice at Cork’s Glucksman gallery today, to discuss how society can make space for what makes people the same, and also very different.

Le Gear has recently returned from a residency in the Arctic, which has resulted in a haunting series of films focusing on time, duration and the properties of water. She doesn’t highlight herself as an artist with a disability. “It’s an ‘invisible’ illness, and not something that comes out in the work. It makes me uncomfortable to have that label, and I know that many of my friends will be surprised to see this and find out that I have a disability,” she says.

Le Gear found the experience at Fire Station excellent. “It’s very hard to put yourself into any sort of box, but there was no pigeon-holing.”

That pigeon-holing, that misleading concept of normal ultimately disables us all. Even the healthiest among us will succumb to age (if we’re lucky) and discover new obstacles to navigating the world.

“It’s a really interesting dialogue that’s opening up,” says Le Gear.“It’s like everyone has their own challenges and perspectives, some challenges are greater than others. The whole thing is so complex.” Just like people themselves.