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Anne Teahan: Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility - disability arts online
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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 / 11 July 2010

Photo of the Fountain outside the Hirschhorn Museum

Photo of the Fountain outside the Hirschhorn Museum by Anne Teahan

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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.