1 May 2006
James Aldridge: Inside-Out - art, image and disability
James Aldridge explores his relationship to disability and impairment
I have drawn, made and explored the world around me for as long as I can remember, and have been lucky (and determined) enough to have made my passion into my job over the 10 years since leaving college.
My work has always focused on my relationship with what we have come to call nature and how our dependence on learnt ways of perceiving our world has led to social, ecological and mental problems.
I am fascinated by the culture and rituals of other societies where art plays an integral and daily role and where any spiritual focus lies in the appreciation of life as an integral part of the world around you.
Working in a range of materials and art-forms, I aim to blur boundaries and highlight the importance of developing direct personal awareness of our surroundings, rather than relying on socially constructed ways of seeing.
Whilst at art college my work was often seen as too keen to engage with the viewer, and I sat through countless seminars and tutorials where shock value and superficial imagery were applauded while work which aimed to engage people in an exploration of alternative personal and material realities was dismissed as having all been done before.
Since leaving college I have made it an integral part of my work to set up and run projects that encourage others in a creative exploration of their own environment, and consequently manage projects for a range of organisations including schools, museums and charities.
I was recently commissioned to undertake an action research project for Art Shape to develop new ideas in my work. Part of the commission was running creative workshops with disability groups from across Wiltshire, exploring the underlying themes of the On The Next Level exhibition. Although I have worked with groups of all needs and backgrounds over the years, this is the first time that I have applied for and been offered work as a disabled artist.
As someone who is used to working with others who have been identified as disabled, I have made it my aim to get whatever training and experience I can in providing for different people's needs, and keep up to date with discussion around models of disability and work that is taking place in disability arts.
When running projects I see the damage done by elements of the education and care systems that set people up to fail by judging their artwork against models of success limited by what is normal or good. In the worst cases, people are told that they can't draw or aren't given the opportunity to try; work is done for them to make it acceptable and their name written neatly underneath.
The work that I have created for the Art Shape exhibition Space Between (part of the On the Next Level initiative) consists of pieces of male clothing cut, stitched and layered with materials that aim to interrupt the formal male image and cut through it, both literally and metaphorically, to explore the biological, personal and private spaces beneath. Together with an image of each of the pieces being worn, this work will make up the installation Inside-Out, which will tour as part of the Space Between exhibition to venues across the South-West, launching at Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Gloucestershire on 30th April this year.
Alongside the development of my individual work I ran projects with Link-Up and Shopmobility (Salisbury), as well as participants from day centres from across Wiltshire, towards the end of 2005. In these I worked with participants to give them the opportunity to make a wearable artwork that explored issues and objects of personal relevance. Some chose to make work relating to their own situation as disabled people, whilst others for example, focused on a love of Elvis or dance.
What I aimed to do was to give people the opportunity to have their voice heard through art; to make something that could be worn and would aim to take control of their personal image, if only for a short length of time, saying something about who they really are and not relying on others' preconceptions.
The work from this body-mask project was exhibited at an exhibition curated by Peter Riley from The Creasey Gallery at Salisbury Library, together with photographs of each participant modelling their work.
Disability, impairment and discrimination
The more recent changes to the Disability Discrimination Act have edged a whole new batch of people into the disability arena, people with diabetes, epilepsy, HIV or other largely invisible conditions can find themselves receiving some legal protection, but also questioning the value of a new label that they have available to them if they choose.
In my own situation, the largest disability arises when people become aware of my impairment - in the way of the social model of disability, I am disabled not only by my condition, but by the attitudes and discrimination that I can face because of it. So what benefit is there of self-identifying as disabled?
It is this personal quandary and a belief in the need for art that explores the world of the individual in relationship to their environment rather than that which rehashes inherited realities, that has inspired my recent work and which prompted me to write this article.
As someone with an invisible disability, I sometimes find myself in a bit of a no man's land. I feel any impairment is my own business, and yet when working with other people, both disabled and non-disabled, assumptions can be made about my own needs, or perceived lack of them, which leaves me at a disadvantage.
As my health and resulting impairments can vary in over time, so can any adjustments I need to make in my working life, but do I risk a negative reaction by asking for my needs to be taken into account?
Of course I can see the value of being more open, of taking a stand, and in principle it's a way of working and being that I sign up to. But it's not always that simple and is a matter for personal consideration. Situations and people vary and that's something we all should bear in mind.
My recent work has been about exploring these issues, and I don't have all the answers. I am not sure how much of my future work will be made specifically as a disabled artist, but I accept the influence that exploring my own situation can have on others and aim to continue working in a way that enables people with differing needs and voices to be heard and included.
The Space Between exhibition organised by Artshape will be showing at:
- Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, 30th April to 5th June 2006.
- Brewhouse Arts Centre Taunton, Somerset, 1st July to 5th August 2006.
- Holton Lee Arts Centre
- Salisbury Library and Galleries Wiltshire, 10th February to 31st March 2007
near Poole, Dorset, 2nd October to 3rd November 2006
All the art works exhibited will be featured in the Space Between DVD catalogue alongside an educational resource guide for teachers, tutors, community group leaders and support staff. A programme of events and workshops is also accompanying the exhibition.
The exhibition launch runs from 12 noon on Sunday 30 April 2006, featuring an open artists forum from 1-2pm with official speeches from 3pm. For more details please contact:
For more information on James' work please see his website at jamesaldridge-artist.co.uk