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Ayesha Ahmad: On ‘Mask:Mirror:Membrane’, an exhibition by Deborah Padfield

27 Jul, 11 | by Ayesha Ahmad

A recent viewing at the Menier Gallery of Deborah Padfield’s ‘Mask: Mirror: Membrane’ exhibition of images produced from experiences of facial pain, plunged my own experience into that of the perceiver of pain.

In collaboration with Professor Joanna Zakrzewska, facial pain patients, and clinicians from UniversityCollege London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Deborah Padfield asked an important question:

Can you see Pain?

When we are in pain, our instinct is to convey this pain; to share in order to disperse and annihilate its effects. The experience of pain is in its expression though – without expression, where can we find, place, and situate how we feel? Deborah Padfield’s exhibition was a surrogate expression and as she wrote about those with facial pain:

The face is not always able ‘to express’. Issues of communication, inherent to the pain experience, are exacerbated when the very ‘canvas’ normally used to express pain is itself in pain. It becomes either a mask hiding the emotions behind it or a frozen mirror reflecting the projections of others”.

In this escapade of pain, a solidified, encapsulated and overwhelming form of pain was evident in the different objects of the exhibition’s photographic images. These images were tended to, carved, and grown from the experiences of the facial pain patients. Some people chose to create the effects of their pain through the visualization of the senses; fingernails scraping a wall, a knife piercing the tender flesh of a strawberry, or a halo of soft hands surrounding the harsh zone of a face in pain.

The gallery’s hexagon structure acted as a frame, channeling the photographs in my surrounding, and my vision was guarded by the defenses, the fights, the labor, the fierceness of all sources of the face’s expression, of the endurance that each person had faced.

During the insightful discussion between the panel and the facial pain patients who participated in the project, I learned the full depth of the images, the places to which each individual person’s experience had taken them to, which Deborah Padfield, through an incredible talent, worked to navigate and fetch back into our horizon.

In my work, I often write about the necessity of a person’s story and the necessity of writing words; that through silence you can be heard. But in this exhibition, I learnt about the difficulties in being seen too. A face is symbolic in countless ways, and some of these manifested in the style of the images and the variation of interpretation between one persons photograph and another.

Pain is either my pain or you pain; the meeting-point for this is the ‘membrane’, which featured as a centrifugal point for this exhibition. In this juxtaposition, I am reminded of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on the ‘Invisible and Visible Body’, whereby he said that the ‘invisible’ etches and scribes onto the ‘visible’, neither of which would exist without the other. It is through communication that the intersubjectivity of the invisible, the pre-given body, is transcended. Such communication in Deborah Padfield’s work was enabled through a conversation with each participant and resulted in each photo generating its own energy.

The images were realizations. They provided a through way for the spectator to venture across, to permeate the membrane that allowed us to go ‘where we do not expect’. Again, the ideas of another philosopher passed by – Jean-Luc Marion has distinguished between idols and icon. In the former, we view and project our aspirations and dreams, whereas in the latter, we stand and we receive the energy, the personification of spirituality and descriptions beyond words. This is the transition that occurred whilst viewing the photographic images – they transcended from the mask we create in the building of our views of another person, which ultimately destructs, to a timeless space where only the person’s metaphor remained. We might not know the story but we could see.

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