Jacqueline Donachie: Weight, Susan’s Eyes and Winter Trees 2008

Friday Focus leafletThis is an article I wrote after giving a talk about the artist and her work at one of the Leamington Spa Gallery’s ‘Friday Focus’ talks

Donachie’s work “Weight, Susan’s Eyes and Winter Trees 2008” is a recent acquisition of The Leamington Art Gallery and is an important and thought-provoking piece to have in their collection. It stands out in the gallery because it is so different to the other pieces on display: it is an installation, and is modern and minimalist in its use of media, techniques and presentation. It helps to raise and expand important debates such as the interaction between science and art, the relationship between the art object and the viewer, and ideas about the politics of representation and interpretation.

This work is also captivating because of the refreshing and unusual way it focuses on the genetic disorder Muscular Dystrophy – which the artist’s sister has. Muscular Dystrophy is a muscle wasting condition of which there are many types – and each affects different muscles. Most conditions are progressive, causing the muscles to weaken over time. Some form of this disease affects more than 70,000 people in the UK. There is no cure for any of the different types, though there are various treatments that can help and gene therapy may be developed in the future. 

The process and collaborative experience of producing art is just as important to Donachie as the final product. Particularly in work about her family, Donachie believes collaboration stopped her from focusing on purely personal aspects. As her work is ‘processed based’ it makes us aware of the materials used, and of the process she is going through emotionally – but also physically in order to make the work.

Donachie’s work is not just about making the art, medium and emotion accessible to everyone, but aims to give science a chance to be heard and understood too. In her work, art and science need each other for the full effects to be successful. This is pertinent in the light of current debates about education, as it illustrates that both science and art are equally important.

In the installation at the Leamington Art Gallery, the characteristics of being perhaps initially unreadable suggest the emotions are restrained: the artist is trying to work through her feelings surrounding Muscular Dystrophy in an accessible way – rather than making the art obviously personal or even sentimental, which could alienate the viewer.

This lack of any overt personal ‘imprint’ by the artist allows us to read our own meanings into the work. This links to the artist’s belief that what is sometimes important “is not always what’s in the artwork, it is what you leave out”. This suggests Donachie’s art is about the viewer just as much as it is about the artist, the subject matter and the materials. In an interview she does state she is always aware of her audience, and constantly anticipates reactions to her work.

One of the Weight drawings

One of the Weight drawings

We are encouraged to walk into the alcove, as there is space around each part of the installation for us to see it from different angles and get up close. The “Weight” drawings are made with light pencil markings and so do need to be looked at closely. This physical closeness and encouragement to move within the space emphasises the need for a personal engagement with the work. It also makes us conscious of the physicality of the art and of our own physical presence. This is in keeping with the context of this work as Muscular Dystrophy affects people physically.

This artistic intervention is personal to the gallery due to the way it works with, and fills, the space – it cannot look like this in any other place. For example, the heights of the metal structures would need to be altered elsewhere. The artist likes her installations to evolve and be manipulated or reformed by the space and curators. This emphasizes that she wants (her) art to be public, accessible, universal – her work is generous, constantly evolving and responding to the space, and the limitations or opportunities it provides.

The work is also appropriate to Leamington because as a spa town it has a history associated with medical science – patients would be advised to take the waters as cures for illnesses during the Victorian time – and more specifically, for nearly two centuries medical treatments, such as hydrotherapy and physiotherapy, took place in this building.

Drawings, photography and sculpture are used to represent the artist’s relationship with her sister and response to illness and science. This gives multiplicity to the work, suggesting there are many ways of seeing and representing the human physical body as well as emotions of love and pain. This multiplicity helps to deepen the viewer’s response as well as to communicate some of the complex feelings Donachie experiences in her relationship with her sister.

Sculpture is an appropriate medium because the way Donachie depicts her relationship with her sister is through concentrating on physicality – such as the physical structure of her sister’s skin and skeleton, or the physical feeling she has when supporting her sister literally and emotionally (which is conveyed in “Weight”, and in “Winter Trees” as the metal structures are positioned as literal supports to the ceiling). In an interview, Donachie admits she is conscious that as her sister and herself get older they are starting to separate physically as her sister’s physical capabilities are becoming less and less.

Donachie depicts emotional and physical pain (a common part of her and her sister’s lives) and makes it into something beautiful in her art. She insists that art should be positive and definitely not depressing or melancholic. This is particularly seen in the photographs “Susan’s Eyes” where she photographs her sister’s stitches after her operation to stop her eyelids from drooping. As people with Muscular Dystrophy have very little muscle, skin and skeletal structures are not always well supported or upheld. This is also partly why one of the metal poles in “Winter Trees” is upright while the other is bent over, as it could represent the artist’s and her sister’s contrasting physical forms.

The photographs of Susan’s eyes concentrate on the shades of purple, and the detailed and intriguing patterns of the stitches on the skin. There is a sense of fragility here, but due to the bold close-up shots this is overpowered by feelings of curiosity and intimacy – we definitely get a sense of the artist’s love for her sister and acceptance, understanding, and appreciation of her physical presence.

However, this work is all about getting past surface appearances, towards a deeper physicality or emotion that is physically felt. This suggests the terms ‘physicality’ and the ‘physical’ are given multiple meanings. The work also questions or refreshes our initial perceptions or quick judgments about the physical manifestation of Muscular Dystrophy, or people with any illness or difference.

The idea of ‘weight’ is also given multiple meanings, or can be interpreted in many ways. The piece can be about ‘weight’ in the sense of feeling like you have a weight on your shoulders, or physically lifting and supporting something, or testing or improving your strength through the repetition of carrying a weight. In an interview, the artist thought that the physical part would be the weight of her sister, who she is used to lifting, as her illness affects her balance, so sometimes she falls. Donachie said she realizes more and more that she’s very conscious of the weight of her sister.

She is aware that at some point, everyone has to lift another adult, or child – so this process of lifting a person is something we may all encounter, and represents many different human interactions. The artist says, “I am also interested in my own physicality; I’m quite strong and fit, and interested to see what I can do. It is not only about my sister being ill, it is also about me trying to be strong”.

This tension between strength and weakness, fragility and endurance is depicted in the “Weight” drawings. This is partly due to the contrast between the subject matter and the medium – because the drawings illustrate heavy objects being lifted by a support system, yet the pencil markings are light and delicately made. Additionally, the paper used is thin map paper, which naturally crinkles – the way it is displayed to show the edges of the paper emphasises this natural waviness as well as revealing how thin and fragile the paper is. The juxtaposition of strength with weakness could refer to Donachie and her sister, but could also refer to conflicting feelings and states of being just within the sister – as she is trapped in a physically weak body, yet to survive she is emotionally or internally strong.

This work as a whole helps to overcome the misinterpretation of Muscular Dystrophy. It suggests through collaboration and inclusivity that if – as a society – we talked about challenging and difficult issues, and were more open minded towards people with differences or tolerant of each other in general, such misinterpretations could be prevented and enable us not to get stuck on surface appearances.

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