Review: Art and Medicine

A recent trip to Japan gave me the opportunity to re-visit the Mori Art Museum. This museum on the 53rd floor of large apartment and shopping complex building in downtown Tokyo has a well deserved reputation for staging engaging exhibitions of international contemporary art. In fact the museum is somewhat of an oasis in a city where good art is there but is hard to find.

Medicine and Art is the current feature exhibition at the Mori. The show is described by museum literature as having a theme of "the human body as the meeting place of science (medicine) and art". It is a theme with great potential given visual arts role in describing the human body for centuries and arts long standing interest in understanding human mortality. The exhibition curated by the Museum's Director Nanjo Fumio is promoted as including work by Damien Hirst and Leonardo da Vinci - a strange duo perhaps but one that should make a couple of different demographics stand up and take notice and a duo likely to generate media interest.

The show itself however is a strangely disjointed one which fails to be more than the sum of its parts. The exhibition comprises of contemporary art works and objects from the history of medicine - implements such as saws, scalpels, wheelchairs, an early x-ray machine etc, a combination that should have been exciting and compelling - but wasn't. Both class of objects - that is the art and the medical equipment seemed to stand apart from each other without a dialogue despite sharing the same exhibition galleries and being in close proximity. In part this lack of dialogue might be because we needed more artwork to tease out the historical objects but another reason may well be the museum's relationship with the drug and medical giant Wellcome. The Wellcome Trust, listed as a co-organizer of the exhibition was the source of many and perhaps all of the medical artefacts on display. (Did Wellcome in effect hire the galleries to show off their collection?)

To the art. Engaging to this viewer was Gilles Barbier's 'L'Hospice/The Nursing Home' in which cartoon superheroes from days past are shown wrinkled and grey as they would be today. An old Captain America, a wrinkled Superwoman in a wheelchair was an amusing reminder of the humbling that ageing confers. From a different age Maruyama Okyo's 1780 series of skeletons performing various moves are engaging 330 years later while the object that resonated with me was a walking stick labelled as that of Charles Darwin.

The Australian artists represented in the exhibition are unfortunately rather predictable in terms of the theme and given the country in which the exhibition is being staged. To choose Stelarc and Patricia PIccinini shows a lack of knowledge of other more relevant Australian artists Farrell and Parkin come immediately to mind - they own the theme of art and medical science in Australia. Stieg Persson's viral paintings would also be a better choice than the two selected too. Worst still is that Stelarc and Picinnini's work is included as a result of funding from the Australia Council, a large exhibition label informs us. It is embarrassing that Australia has to pay to have it's artists in such a museum show. The long and the short of it is this show with such a promising theme seems flat and compromised.


By David O'Halloran

David O'Halloran

David O'Halloran is an Australian visual art curator of 25 years experience working with some of the country's most important visual arts organisations including the Biennale of Sydney, the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Contemporary Art Services Tasmania, and the Adelaide Festival. For the Glen Eira City Council Gallery he has curated important exhibitions that surveyed the work of significant Australian artists, including Elizabeth Gower, John Dunkley-Smith, Jon Campbell, Jan Murray, Stieg Persson and Victor Mazjner. David O'Halloran fondly remembers a maxim drummed into students at art school - "you can be so open minded your brains fall out".