Interdisciplinary artist with a focus on medical science and chronic pain

Interdisciplinary artist with a focus on medical science and chronic pain

Pain is an enigmatic concept. It is obscurely wrapped up in an intricate web of physical sensations, emotions, memories, cognition and social interaction. It is also accompanied by experiences of anxiety, desperation and shame that many people overlook.

McGill Pain Questionnaire visually defines and expresses my own illness and visceral pain - endometriosis - against the backdrop of a classic clinical assessment tool, McGill Pain Questionnaire. I investigate the objective method for describing pain that quantifies what is essentially a very subjective experience. Through the process of making art, I express my private pain and attempts to make sense of the experience.
MDF, motor, barbed wire, timber, perspex, paint, handles, label holders, paper, TV screens, DVD players, fluorescent light
360x200x50 cm
Installation view: Main Gallery, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney 2012
I often use furniture in my work as an agency to externalise a subjective experience. In his The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard claims various architectural structures that deal with inside and outside, such as wardrobes and cabinets, are metaphors for the complex human psyche – our intimate ideas, memories, thoughts and feelings are stored and organised inside of these constructions.[1]

Keeping order of one’s subjective pain experience just like administrative materials, a filing cabinet is used to organise everything in a systematic manner - including abstract concept such as pain is categorised within it.[2] Thus irrational fears or intangible memories may be then supposedly filed away rationally inside the drawers of the cabinet. Once done, there is no need to rely on memory to recollect past ideas or events – for the reason that objectively archiving them in a filing cabinet is more reliable.[3] These characteristics of filing cabinets are incorporated into this project in combination with the medical pain assessment method, the McGill Pain Questionnaire, for clinically cataloguing and measuring private experiences of a person in pain.

For the installation McGill Pain Questionnaire I used filing cabinets in order to analyse and critique how one’s pain is measured and evaluated in the field of medicine. The filing cabinets are also used as a surrogate for the pained body and psyche with seemingly perfectly functioning façade of a person.

[1] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places.
[2] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places, 77.
[3] Ibid.

Installation view: Art of Pain, curated by Vicki Sowry (ANAT), Kerry Packer Civic Gallery, The Hawke Centre, Samstag Building, University of South Australia 2015

McGill Pain Questionnaire takes the form of two large sized filing cabinets narrowly facing each other for viewers to stand. The monotonous drawers cover the faces of both cabinets, each labelled with selected adjectives drawn from the Questionnaire and following its ‘as if/as though’ pain descriptor methodology. There are moving images through the viewing windows on both sides showing selected visual manifestations of my persistent pain.

The filing cabinet format represents the way that the verbal descriptions were collected, filed and catalogued for clinical assessment. ​​​​​​​

Compensating for the lack of control when a person begins to experience body disownership is represented in this work through the well-controlled façade of the symmetrical and uniformly organised filing cabinet.​​​​​​​
The multitude of closed drawers in the installation signifies private information which can only be accessed by a suitable party, such as health professionals; and also represents how one’s private experiences can never be fully exposed nor conveyed directly, despite the latest advanced medical research. Like pain, which is so difficult to express openly, the drawers are always closed in this work and cannot be opened by the viewer. Although I have labelled the drawer fronts with pain descriptive adjectives used in the questionnaire, the words themselves are also closed doors, for there is no adequate substitute for the actual sensation of the pain. The listener, in this case the viewer, can only imagine but not directly experience.
On either side of the filing cabinet structure, are window views of scenes suggesting what may be contained behind the closed drawers. 
The long window on one side of the cabinet shows one particular experience that I have often used to describe my visceral pain: “it feels like strings of barbed wire are scraping against my organs”. To visually implement this effect, I have employed barbed wire painted in black with a moving mechanism behind the viewing window.

As the barbed wire rotates, it scrapes, digs and tears everything within its vicinity. Accompanying this is the eerie noise of scratching. The barbed wire slowly eats away the inner surface of the Perspex whilst the outside texture maintains a seemingly unblemished smooth texture. It symbolises an experience that is imperceptible, yet it certainly exists for the person feeling it.
The opposite windows show other pain experiences via three video screens: “it feels as if it is pulsing, shooting and stabbing through my organs and muscles”. Each screen shows a visual interpretations of one of these three descriptors. The materials used to illustrate this experience are seaweed and thickened milk.
Sensitive to the quality of the ocean environment, seaweed absorbs everything from the water’s mineral contents, including toxic chemicals leaked into the ocean. As my illness is strongly affected by environmental factors such as dioxin, I chose to employ seaweed as a metaphor for my affected organs.
Milk represents the hereditary factor of my illness. Although the clear cause of this particular illness is yet to be found, medical practitioners believe there is a strong link to the female family line. My illness is also most highly active during child bearing years. Bachelard’s idea, which suggests the humanness of storage furniture like cabinets is thus exemplified in my installation, which combines both the subjective experience and an objective collation method.

Through the videos and the moving mechanism I have not only objectified the intangibility of my visceral symptoms but also tried to make sense of my private agony, utilising the structure of a filing cabinet to organise and categorise my pain.​​​​​​​ 
Pain affects most of us at some time in our lives in one way or another to varying degrees. It brings attention to the fact that we are not perfect, and that we are vulnerable. The experience of pain, either through illness or injury, is very much a part of our lived experience, and is also a sign that we are alive. 

The subjective nature of pain makes it difficult for a third party to understand its complexity. Pain is invisible, and directly trying to communicate this ambiguous yet fundamental perception can often add to the burden for the person living with it. The negative effects of illness span all aspects of their lives, not just the physical. In order to treat chronic illness and pain it becomes necessary to address this multi-layered trait. 
Fortunately, pain researchers in recent years have acknowledged the fact that each individual experience pain differently. Perception of pain is no longer believed to be always symptomatic of a physiological disease or injury that can be traced and seen. However, pain still leaves medical practitioners baffled. It is even more difficult for the general public to understand its complex nature. I do not assert that the new theories and praxis of pain can answer all the challenges for communicating one’s pain – as is pointed out through the closed doors and smooth façade of the perspex in my installation. However in terms of the communicability of pain, the McGill Pain Questionnaire is still one of the most appropriate mediators currently available to medical science. 

There is room for art to fill in some of the gaps alongside science, as an alternative storytelling platform, and in allowing the audience to create meaningful interpretations of what to them is essentially an abstract concept. In fact, pain and art have something in common. They both benefit from metaphorical or visual forms to be able to communicate and share with others. Through this work I hope to generate a better understanding of the complexities of pain for myself and for the wider audience.

Selected works

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