Hannah Laycocks’s Visions of Multiple Sclerosis: Perceiving Identity
Reviewed by Shahd Alshammari, PhD.
When artists’ work is considered provocative, you usually think that their choice of subject is taboo. While certainly not “taboo”, the disabled body, and even more interestingly the “invisible disabled body”, in itself a paradox, is a subject that medical practitioners and society continue to struggle with. What happens to the sense of ‘self’ when the body attacks the self, essentially its own being? Hannah Laycock’s photography exhibitions ‘Perceiving Identity’ and ‘Awakenings’ launched in 2015, both exploring the disabled body and identity.
Laycock’s work is contemporary in its subject and form, while at the same time being rooted in her own personal experience with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Like Hannah, I have similarly struggled with MS. Many times during the day, I tell my body to behave. I say it out loud. I talk to my body, telling her to wake up. With MS, the Central Nervous System – to some extent the mind – attacks the body. Disconnected, alienated from the body, there is a breakdown of communication. The body must wake up. That is my understanding of the title of the exhibition ‘Awakenings.’ I root it in a very subjective experience, while simultaneously recognizing the work’s significance in urging society to wake up, to open its eyes to “other” ways of living and being.
‘Perceiving Identity’, titled in the same thematic way that ‘Awakenings’ is, raises a central question of interest to Disability Scholars, namely identity. I have called MS, a ‘Random Disease’ in the past, one that changes one’s life course, though not necessarily affecting mortality. In one of the photographs (Figure 1), Laycock captures a simple shot of a road. Uncomplicated, it is a road that is not paved with stones, holes or obstacles. It is what it is. In fact, the colors on the road seem to resemble the light of rainbow colors. My own vision understands the colors as orange, green, and yellow. The choice of colors symbolizes the wide array of MS identities, and MS symptoms (no two individuals have the same symptoms; the course of the disease differs from one person to another). Color blends onto the road, and sometimes, since vision can be affected in MS patients, this is not always a pleasant experience. It becomes difficult to differentiate between spaces. Other questions that chronically ill patients have voiced or left unvoiced, suppressed, include “where will my life go from here?” The road is the map, the new map that you are handed along with the diagnosis. This is the path, as unknown and random as it is.
Figure 1. Copyright Hannah Laycock
Figure 2 is raw in its positioning of the artist at the forefront, as we are visually forced to focus on her back, on which she dangles what seems to be redcurrants, tracing her spine.
Figure 2. Copyright Hannah Laycock
The spine of course is affected in MS, as well as the brain. The redcurrant lands in its vibrancy along Laycock’s flesh, a strong contrast between the redness of the fruit and the artist’s skin. Redcurrants are supposedly beneficial in terms of a healthy immune system, efficient nerve transmission signalling, protection from free radical damage, amongst other potential effects.” Whether this is actually proven to help MS is not the point. It is yet another attempt at rebuilding a central nervous system that has chosen to break up with its significant other – the self, one’s identity. The artist holds the redcurrant in place, exhibiting control of her body, an attempt at the very least to alter the course of the disease, to do one’s part, to eat healthy, to be vigilant in fighting the disease.
All of the photographs that Laycock has beautifully presented share this theme of disconnection, of a breakdown of what is essentially communication between the mind and the body. As a Disability Studies scholar and someone who sees through the difficulty, and randomness, of living with this undefinable and uncanny disease (uncanny because it is unhomely, it is a body that used to house me just fine), I can say that Laycock’s work is bold and does not attempt to rectify or beautify or inspire. It recognizes the unpredictability and confusion of the disease, both for the patient and for medical practitioners. Nobody has answers, as frustrating as it is. Laycock’s work tells a fragmented narrative, part of the fragmentation of MS, of living with this disease, and seems to force you into her lived experience, rather than just standing along the sidelines, using diagnostic words, and labeling MS as ‘degenerative.’ The photographs carry a sense of closeness and intimacy. As viewers we are almost forced to stop and think about the literal and figurative meanings in Laycock’s artistic vision. Each photograph encourages us to pause and to ask “what is going on?”
And that question in itself is a repeated and dominant one in the lives of MS patients and neurologists attempting to diagnose and cure MS.
Hannah Laycock’s work can be viewed here: http://www.hannahlaycock.com/Portfolio/Perceiving-Identity.aspx
Devan Stahl, Darian Goldin Stahl. Seeing illness in art and medicine: a patient and printmaker collaboration. Med Humanities 2016;42:3 155–159.