Motion Disabled Unlimited - the award winning exhibition and installation by Simon Mckeown - got a public outing at the torch relay celebrations, in South Park, Oxford on 9 July. Deborah Caulfield ponders the meaning of Disability Art writ large and loud at such a mainstream event.
This gigantic installation, an Unlimited commission for the Cultural Olympiad, is the creation of Simon McKeown, DadaFest International Artist of the Year 2011. It follows on from his motion capture studies of the body and movements of some of the UK's most famous Paralympians.
Weighing 110 kg and standing 11 metres high, - twice as tall as a giraffe and six times taller than the average British male - McKeown’s inflatable sculpture was by far the biggest thing in Oxford’s Torch Relay Celebrations. Curiously though, Motion Disabled: Unlimited looked larger from a distance than it did up close. Is this a metaphor for disability, or indeed anything different? Perhaps, to appreciate the significance of something, one has to take the long view.
Considering the context (Olympiamania), Motion Disabled: Unlimited is a reminder that while size is unimportant, scale is crucial and perspective is everything. As McKeown says: “Disabled people should be in the mainstream, should be the tv stars, writers, makers, doers, professors, etc… not confined to poverty and oppression and cast off. On the day they close Remploy we need huge statements… disabled people are here, and being abandoned as we know.”
Gazing up at Motion Disabled: Unlimited, its monochromic greyness blending perfectly with this summer's rain soaked sky, the meaning seemed both obvious and inscrutable. It was at once instantly recognisable and completely strange. I observed a range of reactions, from the purely baffled to the greatly amused. Some people thought it was a bouncy castle; others had themselves photographed in front of it, mimicking the pose.
Neutrality in terms of colour and gender adds to the mystery and shockability of this work, making it both ordinary and striking at the same time. Not that anyone was noticeably affected by it while I was there. Segregation - separate categories or 'special' places for disabled people and their work - has become less acceptable, although the issues are not clear cut and the contradictions yet to be resolved.
Meanwhile, this important piece of Disability Art, McKeown's first large-scale three-dimensional rendering of his motion capture work, just stood there smack in the middle of a public space, in all its magisterial ordinariness, receiving absolutely no special treatment. As McKeown observed: "for one day in Oxford the organisers placed us centre stage; placed disability in the middle of their festival.”
What, no curiosity?
Disability as scientific specimen to be studied is a feature of the medical model of disability, wherein the aim is to cure disabled people’s ailments, rid them of their imperfections and turn them into normal and a whole people. So on another day, listening to someone who is deeply fascinated by disabled people’s bodies would see me reaching, as it were, for the political sick bag.
A disability equality – or social model - approach would have us accept disabled people’s impairments, and their associated irregularity and asymmetry, as other ways of being normal. Take away the barriers then stand back and watch these people go.
Now disabled people can be found interesting and considered absolutely marvellous or staggeringly beautiful, for all the right reasons. Amazing. Indeed, McKeown’s work turns dysfunction on its head. Instead of abnormality (medical model) he shows us people moving in unusual and interesting ways. Thus, normality is no longer a narrow set of rules for the perfectly formed; it has stretched to include everyone in all their glorious versions and variations.
By reducing bodies to basic shapes, and removing facial features and gender references, McKeown shows us not merely a fully functioning human, but a super human. Here McKeown takes another leap. Which is the whole point of Disability Art: to boldly go where others already been and badly got it wrong. I have seen films of disabled people doing ‘tricks’ with prostheses, a particular kind of charity marketing to promote the institutions that ‘made it possible’.
Yet, at my special school we recognised each other as much by our shape and way of walking, as by our voice and smile, what McKeown refers to as our ‘physical signature’. Hence, the grey figure on the hill is unmistakeably Mat Fraser. Except it isn’t. It was certainly inspired by our quintessentially kick-boxing thalido-manic hero. It is also symbolic of others whose bodies move differently, interestingly, efficiently.
Motion Disabled: Unlimited is as valid a representation of a sporting excellence, as any you will encounter over the next couple of months.
But why is it so big?
It needs to be huge to address the massive inequality that disabled people face. Moreover, an important point sometimes needs to be overstated, to avoid being overlooked. And there comes a time when an artist just wants to go large with their work, especially, I would imagine, when working mostly digitally.
So to make it this big, inflatable was the only option. It also has the advantage of portability, save that it requires two men, a tool box and connection to a power supply to keep this body up and running. Unlike the real thing.
Motion Disabled Unlimited is on show at the 20-21 Visual Arts Centre, St. John's Church, Church Square, Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire until 18 August.
The exhibition includes Mckeown's Paralympians study as well as the installation of the large inflatable.
Simon Mckeown is also a featured artist on http://www.pushmeplease.co.uk/the-artists/
Read an interview on BBC News Tees