When: 10th May – 21st June 2018
Where: Ort Gallery, 500 – 504 Moseley Road, Birmingham B12 9AH
£: Free admission
What is it?
Visual artist Charlotte Jarvis’ Et in Arcadia Ego, an unusual installation at Birmingham’s Ort Gallery, will open on Thursday 10th May, taking a look at how we view cancer and our own mortality.
Jarvis has collaborated with Prof. Hans Clevers to grow her own tumour, in a laboratory, with healthy cells harvested from her body. Jarvis’ project aims to examine mortality and create a dialogue about cancer.
While we are built to live for about 80 years, our individual cells have much shorter lifespans. Stem cells allow us to outlive our constituent parts, replacing lost cells with fresh specimens. Yet, every once in a while, a specific mutation in their DNA causes them to start dividing more often, moving around and occupying nearby tissues; they have become cancer cells.
Collaborator on the project, Prof. Hans Clevers, from the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, has proved that it takes only four sequential DNA mutations to convert a normal colon stem cell into a full-blown colon cancer cell. To do this Hans’ group replicated the ‘natural’ process by which healthy cells become cancer cells in the lab. For this project Hans helped Charlotte to replicate this process on her own cells, creating an art work that is biologically part of her, but grown outside of her body in a laboratory and ultimately exhibited in a gallery. Whilst the mutations carried out on Charlotte’s cells are common to all gut cancer, the cells themselves, having derived from Charlotte’s body, are distinct to her and as such the art work is potentially lethal to Charlotte, but harmless to anyone else.
The installation comprises two ‘sets’ facing each other. The first is a waiting room or more accurately, the trope of a waiting room. Screens show abstract snippets of medical procedures, scientific experiments and disembodied parts of a waiting patient. Corkboards display documents including private emails, rectoscopy photos, lab imagery and sketchbook pages. The second space houses a spot lit mound of soil. Atop the earth sits a box – entirely mirrored, inside and out – creating an illusion of infinite space, within which tiny specks of Charlotte’s cancer sit preserved in Ethanol in a petri dish.
The project has been shown throughout Europe but the exhibition at Ort Gallery is its UK debut. Recent funding cuts to the NHS and other support services have made some of the questions raised by the project particularly relevant. The Welfare Reform and Work Bill 2015 cut Employment and Support Allowance by £125 for people with cancer. More recently the widowed parent’s allowance drastically cut benefits received by families after the death of a loved one. While these ‘austerity measures’ affect the whole country, they are particularly devastating in underprivileged communities, of which Birmingham has many, and this makes discussion and debate even more vital.
Another aim of the project it to question the language of cancer. Patients are often described as battling or fighting cancer. These conflict metaphors suggest that if every patient fought hard enough they would survive. This is clearly not the case. The image of patients fighting cancer also, contradictorily, casts it as the external agent; something alien, so that dying of cancer becomes both the fault of the patient and the result of something ‘other’ to their bodies. Et in Arcadia Ego questions these metaphors, challenges the idea of cancer as alien to us and helps to initiate discussions about mortality.
There will be two events taking place during the exhibition. A Death, Faith and Cancer Group Discussion led by local faith leaders, scholars, medical professionals and hospice clinicians on 12th May at 2pm; and a “Precious” Family Craft Workshop led by Jane Thakoordin and Margaret Murray will take place on 29th May at 2pm. Both events are free and held in association with BrumYODO, a Birmingham-based community collective whose A Matter of Life and Death Festival will take place across Birmingham from 10th – 26th May.
More info: ortgallery.co.uk