25 April 2008
Joe McConnell reviews Ju Gosling's exhibition, the culmination of her National Institute of Medical Research residency
Let me begin with a sincere apology to Ju Gosling for publishing this review of her Abnormal exhibition nearly three months after visiting it at the end of January. Yes, once again the cat ate the homework and a million other obstacles followed. But this apology is important as I want to state as loudly as possible that my delay is no sign of indifference towards the work. In my opinion, this exhibition (alongside Esther Appleyard's Series of Lines) is the most important body of Disability Arts work on offer at the present time. And this 'present time' is central to why I believe Abnormal to be such crucial material.
A short time ago there was talk of a cultural shift within Disability Arts. I understood this to refer to the idea that a body of work had clearly emerged which was seen by a small but growing public, in the words of Vic Finkelstein, to reflect the individual and collective experience of living in a disabling work. This work had also led to ways of seeing and critiquing art in general. Now the focus was going to shift away from a collective sharing of identity issues. Many artists moaned about being ghettoised by Disability Arts. Well, there's been a cultural shift, all right. By its complete rejection of the Disabiliy Arts forums, the Arts Council shows that the high and mighty in the British arts establishment either didn't get disability arts, or they did and didn't like it very much. In this climate, which is surely brought to us by New Labour's policy of cultural homogenisation, I have had personal contact with artists who now seem scared of having the disabled label attached to them. One of these has even renamed London Disability Arts Forum (LDAF) as an Arts Forum when acknowledging the massive support received from that organisation in the past. I passionately believe artists should not be constrained into some politically correct straitjacket, but also believe that organisations such as LDAF now urgently need the support of those artists whom they supported in the past, when that support would have been based on the belief that the supported artist shared some of the clearly stated principles of that organisation. Such an endangered group does not need its history rewritten by funding opportunists.
This is where as a disabled person I want to kiss the ground beneath Ju Gosling. Here is an artist whose integrity shines through every piece of her work. She has known a certain level of success in establishment circles, but remains an unreconstructed deconstructer of the ways in which we continue to be disabled by society. Her exhibition, Abnormal, which sprang from her year-long residency with the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) shows that she has not let her uncompromising dedication to accessibility dumb her work down.
The eight pieces of work emerge from her exploration of whether there is a scientific model of disability distinct from the medical model. The arguments around this are very clearly explained in the project's website:
'To summarise the scientific model of disability, then, disabled people are abnormal, and this is the cause of their inevitable problems. And since normal people aren't disabled, disability is only a minority experience. Meanwhile scientists are all-powerful and are experts on disability, and therefore disability will soon be eliminated. It follows that making fundamental changes to society to accommodate disabled people is a pointless waste of money, as it will soon be unnecessary. In the meantime, only an abnormal minority are affected.'
Again we have the clear timeliness of Gosling's work. At last we have a disabled artist looking at the scientists. They've been looking at us for quite some time now and the enormous body of work on the benefits of current research around genetic screening clearly shows that they do not like what they see and would have eliminated many of us if only they had detected our differences in time. Darn! But it must be noted that Gosling engages with the scientists with great intellectual integrity and never descends to the depths of facile agitprop mud-slinging.
My personal favourite of the Abnormal pieces is Design 4 Life, where two columns of words formed of brightly coloured letters float over a black and white ultrasonic scan of a human foetus. The words are an A to Z of emotionally charged positive adjectives describing humanity (Generous, Humorous, Incorruptible ...) as opposed to the scientific labelling one would expect. A simple idea, beautifully executed.
Although the visual impact of the exhibited work itself is not earth-shattering, the professionalism and intelligence with which the artist documents her engagement with the participating scientists is a magnificent contribution to future research and exploration of related subjects. It can only be hoped that Gosling will be encouraged to continue this work.
It would be wonderful to see this artist collaborate with Esther Appleyard, another visual artist exploring the nature of genetic difference with reference to the debate around embryonic screening.
See a full range of images from the Abnormal Exhibition and read about Ju Gosling's residency and related research at www.scientificmodelofdisability.co.uk