Human bodies taken over by anxiety
Lucy Beech’s short film Pharmakon is a highlight of Ex-Voto: the Body + the Institution in Galway
Christa Englebrecht in Pharmakon, by Lucy Beech
Ex-Voto: the Body + the Institution
Lucy Beech, Jenna Bliss, Cecilia Bullo, Judy Foley, Sinéad Gleeson, Rajinder Singh
Galway Arts Centre
Lucy Beech’s short film Pharmakon revolves around two main characters, a female bouncer (as she is described) and the leader of a health product promotion group, The Healing Grapevine. Not a lot happens, but Beech covers a lot of ground by inference and implication, and the work is firmly grounded by the great screen presence of the two leading performers, Melanie Ash as said bouncer and Christa Englebrecht, who expertly juggles brazenness and vulnerability as the motivational speaker who talks women into buying “restructured” water.
Though still a young artist, Beech already has quite a history of rigorously developed performance-based works, sometimes in collaboration with Edward Thomasson (not in this case) and often built around group dynamics and the ambiguous boundaries between the personal and the commercial. Here she researched an array of relevant experts, groups and activities, some presumably in Liverpool, as the film was a Biennial commission and was – very well – shot in Liverpool locations.
Her research certainly extended to Morgellons, a contentious malady that manifested in the early years of the 21st century, because some of her imagery distinctly recalls the micro-photographic documentation associated with Morgellons. Sufferers believe they are infested with tiny subcutaneous organisms that cause unpleasant sensations including itching, and extrude unidentified microfibres. The conventional medical view is that they are suffering from the delusion of parasitic infestation.
Beech does not cite Morgellons specifically in her film, because it is not about it, per se. It is about, or does manage to convey, the phenomenon whereby a lack of wellbeing, the presumption of being afflicted with a nonspecific malady, or even a certain floating unease, meets medical scepticism and the connected world, including social media: a set of circumstances that facilitates self-diagnosis and commercial exploitation.
Ash, her head shaved, does anxiety very well, which is good because her character’s world is anxiety – frisking nightclub customers, patrolling the edges of The Healing Grapevine events, twitching at every siren, fretting about her health. Englebrecht’s character is equally well-judged: self-absorbed, remote and calculating but adept at using the tropes of her own apparent doubt and emotional frailty to exploit the vulnerability of others and, specifically, other women. An art film doesn’t usually follow a conventional narrative arc, though Pharmakon comes close to doing so, and Beech establishes a conventional enough dramatic tension. A sanctioned observer, the bouncer potentially has an insight into the working of The Healing Grapevine, and does seem to be doubtful about what is going on.
In the event, the bouncer’s anxieties win out over her doubts, and she joins the Grapevine – or should that be the Pyramid? – and swigs the “restructured” water. It is subtly done and on its own terms very effective. At the same time, it opts for simplicity. The odd thing is that, given the richness of the two main characters, one would like a more complex narrative providing a fuller context. As it stands, it is like a sketch for a longer film. The director Andrea Arnold comes to mind, but on this evidence it could be Beech.
As it is, Pharmakon in itself merits a visit to Ex-Voto, a relatively compact show – six exhibitors in all – with a broad scope: “the colonisation of the human body, the treatment of the body by State, corporate, medical and pharmaceutical institutions.” As the last clause suggests, the emphasis is on “the subjective experience of health and illness in the context of institutions”. The point of reference is Michel Foucault’s influential 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic.
In Foucault’s vast historical project, the archaeology of modernity, knowledge usually parlays into power and societal institutions tailor power to produce passive, obedient, compliant citizens, nullifying wild, unpredictable subjectivity. It has been pointed out that his is not a theory of power as such. Rather he argues that power is inevitably implicated in the whole field of social relationships. Foucault does not offer a critique of Big Brother, though his writings have been taken that way. And he is not suggesting an alternative, which exasperates many commentators on his work.
In contemporary cultural theory and the visual arts, Foucault has something like divine status. One of his most widely cited ideas is that of the Panopticon. He found it in the writings of 18th century social theorist Jeremy Bentham, who conceived of it as an institution that puts its inmates under total and constant surveillance.
The point, for Foucault, is that they have no way of telling whether or not they are being observed and must presume they are. It’s a persuasive metaphor for the kind of self-policing individuality that he sees being moulded by the institutional network of modernity. Modern medicine is part of that network.
For her incisive textual contribution to Ex-Voto, writer and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson applies the idea of the Panopticon to the hospital and skilfully relates it to her personal experience.
There’s a tender, therapeutic emphasis in Judy Foley’s beautifully precise drawings and hand-sewn, waxed paper heart valves, an allusion perhaps to the persistence of intricate personal craft in high tech medicine.
Equally, Cecilia Bullo’s sculptures are full of gently restorative touches in their oblique accounts of the injured body and spirit.
Rajinder Singh nods to the intangible with his ethereal images in A Choreography of Worship (shaded of Francesca Woodman), and to harsh materiality with his tiny, figurative clay sculptures, Tumours.
Finally, Jenna Bliss’s film, Poison the Cure confronts issues of big pharma in an allegory – though one that seems close to life, given the vital participation of Puerto Rican artist and activist Michel Nonó – set among workers in a contraceptives factory in Puerto Rico. There’s a hint here of what Foucault does not do in his analysis, which might be described as finding a way out of this mess.
Ex-Voto: the Body + the Institution is at Galway Arts Centre until March 10th. galwayartscentre.ie