SAATCHI GALLERY 27th October 2010 – 17th April 2011
A few weeks ago I visited the new exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery with my group of 4th year King’s College Medical Students. Visits to galleries, museums and art installations are an integral part of the ‘The Good Doctor’ Special Study Module but I hadn’t included the Saatchi Gallery before. Modern conceptual art is challenging and I was uncertain how this visit would help in our exploration of medical matters. I need not have worried; our visit was enjoyable, reassuringly accessible and it was easy to make links to the theme of goodness in contemporary medical practice.
Newspeak Two on display in the large bright rooms at the Saatchi Gallery, King’s Road, London continues the showcase of contemporary British Art started in June 2010 with Newspeak One. All the original exhibits, including the widely advertised Pink Cher by Scott King, have been replaced and the new collection opened at the end of October. Charles Saatchi’s Sensation! exhibition (Royal Academy 1997) had – sensationally – brought late 20th century British Art to public notice. This was the outing of Damian Hirst’s shark, Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Mark Quinn’s blood sculptures, Chris Ofili’s ingenious uses of elephant dung and the Chapman Brothers doing what they do best – shocking us into a reaction. So what would we make of Newspeak?
George Orwell coined the term newspeak in his dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four[i]. This was the deliberately duplicitous politicians’ language which removed all shades of meaning from words. For example, “think” used as both noun and verb makes the word thought superfluous so it can be abolished; if pleasure / pain becomes ”goodthink” any negative connotations can be dismissed. In this way the total dominance of the State was reinforced leaving the population passive and malleable. By calling this collection Newspeak is Saatchi mocking contemporary art? Or is he referring to present-day “artspeak”, an artificial, pretentious, hollow and at times unintelligible discourse? For our group this was our first link to contemporary medicine as we considered the role of “medicspeak”.
Our guide, a postgrad art student, showed us some of her favourite pieces and gave brief descriptions. We appreciated this guidance which allowed us to move on to our own interpretations and make links to contemporary medicine and society. On our own I think we would have been at a bit of a loss. Though a description of all we saw would not be practical here are some highlights.
Gallery 3 contained three massive, detailed and beautifully painted canvasses of men and machines by Jonathan Wateridge. We liked Space Program 2008, a group of men posed in front of a spaceship under construction. However on close scrutiny you could see the spaceship was a milk bottle, the launch control panel a mobile phone key pad, and the astronauts ‘spacesuits’ ordinary workmen’s overalls decorated with bits of household tat. Yet the men, in reality the artist’s friends, give the appearance of authority and confidence. We were reminded of Luke Fildes’ iconic picture The Doctor (1887). This picture, painted at a time of increasing mistrust in the science of medicine, managed to suggest that medicine and the establishment as a whole, had the power to confront the difficulties encountered by society[ii]. In the same way we are lead to think that Wateridge’s unlikely astronauts’ competence and skill will surely lead to a successful expedition to further man’s mastery of outer space and so all is well with the modern world.
Anne Hardy (Gallery 5) has a series of four photomontages of ‘depopulated rooms that suggest surreal fictions’ according to the exhibition catalogue[iii]. What we saw were detailed photographs of the same space, some frames showing a clutter of carefully arranged seemingly miscellaneous objects:
Other frames showed an empty space with the outside crowding in;
We found these images claustrophobic but compelling; reminding us of both the workings of the human body with tortuous nerves and blood vessels, and of the machinery of modern medicine which cuts us off from normal communication with our patients.
In Gallery 10 The Followers, Ximena Garrido-Lecca has produced a huge reproduction of a Peruvian burial wall. Each niche containing photos, mementoes, plates of food or a bottle of beer by which the deceased were remembered by their grieving ‘followers’. This is a beautiful exhibit, but after a short time as observers we became uncomfortable; we felt that we were intruding or showing a prurient misplaced interest in intimate details of people who had had no choice in the display and what it revealed. It was easy to make parallels to the role of the medical practitioner and our patients’ narratives.
So how do I justify this visit to the Saatchi Gallery to look at contemporary British art? How can such activity be a valid and relevant and relevant contribution to undergraduate medical education?
Artists observe, capture and record visual images; when patients describe events, feeling, concerns, they set scenes using their own imagery; in turn, doctors listening to patients’ stories and descriptions form pictures in their own minds. Looking at paintings and any art installations increases our observational skills and allows us an opportunity to practice the interpretation of visual images. By engaging with the story behind the picture we try to discover our own reactions and in group discussion we have the opportunity to explore these feelings further.
Our visit to the Newspeak exhibition stimulated important discussion about important aspects of contemporary medicine which may not be encountered elsewhere in the medical curriculum. We may not have been able to understand it all the exhibits but certainly some of the pieces we looked at in the Newspeak exhibition were wonderful. We came away feeling we had risen to the challenge that modern art had presented and as a result expanded our horizons.
Newspeak (PART TWO): British Art Now is on at the Saatchi Gallery until 17 April 2011
[i] Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. Secker and Warberg, London
[ii] Moore, J ‘What Sir Luke Fildes’ 1887 painting ‘The Doctor’ can teach us about the practice of medicine today’ BJGP March 2008; vol 58:548 p 210-213
[iii] Newspeak: British Art Now Picture by Picture Guide