Saturday, June 2, 2012

‘Old age is not an illness, it is a timeless ascent…’

Mary Sarton, quoted in Harriet Walter’s Reflections on Images of Older Women (London: Facing It Publications, 2011, p.186)

My last post focused on mortality, today’s looks at ageing. The fact of ageing and old age heighten the awareness of our mortality. Both are central to our notion of what it means to be human.

The process of ageing, despite claims to the contrary by various cosmetic products and procedures, is pretty much irreversible. The inevitability of getting older is rarely openly discussed, and even more rarely embraced. Thus, I was particularly looking forward to the current exhibition at GV Art, which does embrace this natural biological process, challenging our negative perceptions and celebrating ageing through a collaboration between artists (Susan Aldworth, Carla Bromhead, Andrew Carnie, Annie Cattrell, Valerie Laws, Melanie Manchot, Jennie Pedley, Susie Rea, Martin A Smith and Stelarc) and scientists (Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University).

There is much to see and dwell on here. To do it the justice it deserves, I will need to revisit and spend more time at this rich and fascinating exhibition.

The themes at the core of the exhibition are three-fold. Firstly, the science and biology of ageing, the how and the why of the process. Perhaps as a result of our denial and avoidance of the fact that we are all ageing daily, even from one second to the next, we rarely stop and consider that actually happens to our bodies as they undergo this constant change. It has often struck me as strange that we only stop to consider our bodies when they let us down. Otherwise, we rarely consider what extraordinary biological machines they are. Which leads to the transformational power of art, and how it can present us with something, hitherto taken for granted, that makes us stop, and think, and wonder. This is exemplified in the current exhibition by Andrew Carnie’s film installation, which mesmerisingly reveals the changes that the body undergoes as it ages.

The second theme is that of frailty, and the disorders such as dementia and stroke that frequently accompany old age. Jennie Pedley’s work, a is for ageing, presented as print on film and stills from video installation, reminds us of this frailty, ‘b’ representing the brain as we see scan images of a stroke. But we are also reminded that illness need not define old age: ‘b’ also stands for bus pass… Poignantly, ‘v’ is associated with ‘voicelessness’, and there is a truth here. Often the old feel invisible and unheard, a fact that inspired Harriet Walter’s photographic celebration Reflections on Images of Older Women, which directly challenges the invisibility that surrounds old age, and presents the bravery that older people exhibit, as, increasingly aware of their own mortality they look it in the eye, and get on with life. I loved how Jennie Pedley balances the various truths of ageing, the inevitable physical weakness that accompanies it, with an upside: ‘u’ is for usefulness…

Which leads me to the the third theme, that of vitality.

The audio installation, Slicing the Brain, by the poet and text artist Valerie Laws, is the result of personal experience and research. The poems focus on dementia (The Incredible Shrinking Brain, Senior Last Moments, Slicing the Brain), and the beauty of the old body (In the dissection room). We watch as the text of The Incredible Shrinking Brain gradually shrinks and disappears before our eyes, mirroring what happens as cognitive processes are affected in dementia, yet in the end we are left with just a single word, joy…

Finally, I want to mention Susan Aldworth’s work, Dissolution, which resulted from time she spent with three women with dementia. In three separate etchings, photographs of the women, dissolved faces as a metaphor of the process of dementia and the dissolution of self, are combined with drawings of the plaques that occur in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease. The result is beautiful, and sad, but also a reminder that at the very centre of the process of ageing, and illness, is a face, and an individual.

There is much more, and I will come back to it when I revisit the exhibition, which continues until August 18.

In addition, there are three accompanying events:

A poetry workshop on June 18 with John Killick

A poetry evening on June 18 with Valerie Laws, John Killick and Sue Hubbard

A drawing masterclass on June 19 with Nina Sellars and Carla Bromhead