Stella Bolaki on Hannah Laycock’s photography
The title Awakenings for Laycock’s photographic project refers to the neurologist Oliver Sacks’ study of the same title which signifies both an emergence from sickness and a spiritual kind of rebirth. Sacks states that nowhere in the objective and technical discourse of neurology ‘does one find any colour, reality or warmth: nowhere any residue of living experience.’ [i]
Following patients’ responses to L-DOPA, the new ‘awakening’ drug that brought them out of the ‘sleeping sickness epidemic’ that swept the world just after WWI, Sacks’ tales set out not to create a ‘system, or to see patients as systems, but to picture a world, a variety of worlds – the landscapes of being in which these patients reside.’
For Sacks, neurology’s favourite word is ‘deficit’: ‘loss of speech, loss of language, loss of memory, loss of vision, loss of dexterity, loss of identity and myriad other lacks and losses of specific functions (or faculties).’(Reference?) Laycock’s project is a ‘photographic journey’ that explores feelings of uncertainty, fear, loss and liberation, intuitively delving into and questioning – as Sacks does – the notion of this neurological “lack.”
In the effects of L-DOPA on his patients, Sacks saw ‘a landscape continually extending, reaching beyond my sight or imagination…It is a very mixed landscape, partly familiar, partly uncanny, with sunlit uplands, bottomless chasms, volcanoes, geysers, meadows, marshes; … archaic, prehuman, almost prehistoric, with a sense of vast forces simmering all round one.[ii]
Laycock has acknowledged the power of Sacks’s writing to conjure visual images that can be developed into actual photographs to provide what is missing from visual representations of MS, whether scientific or lay ones.[iii] Like him, she treats landscape as a metaphor for vital – and vivid – experience. Her landscape images are often set in her native Scotland where she returned after experiencing a relapse in July 2015. For her, the Highlands possess ‘a magical spirit,’ and she writes that ‘the rough shapes and features of the rocks and the rivers’ transmit ‘an impression of enduring persistence and strength.’[iv]
In fact, some of her self-portraits metaphorically transpose the (female) body into a landscape, solid and liquid; conveying change and movement as well as stillness and endurance. Through such contrasts, these photographs capture the evolving and changing landscape of the MS condition and Laycock’s open-ended journey through it. [Figure 2]
Sacks describes the awakened patient as someone who ‘turns an eager and ardent attention on the world’, ‘the stream of being, no longer clogged or congealed, flows with an effortless, unforced ease.’[v] Often, in Laycock’s images, her body and the surrounding landscape blend seamlessly, countering the common metaphor of the diseased body as a battlefield[vi]. Other photographs exploit the tension between limitation and expansion, such as the juxtaposition of a brick wall against a mirror reflecting a blue sky with white clouds. This layered image presents a ‘horizontal’ axis (the wall) that conveys containment and stagnation and a ‘vertical’ one (the sky in the mirror) that conveys elevation and escape or transcendence of the body. [Figure 5]
Many of these photographs reveal something important about the mode of living with MS which is so often about balancing the body, balancing health and illness, and balancing body and mind—the celestial contrasting with what brings down to earth. Rather than aestheticising a condition that is hidden and often debilitating, they generate rich associations that challenge mechanistic conceptions of the body in medicine, just as Sacks does in his writings. In all these ways they can be seen as counteracting the kind of ‘deficit’ or ‘loss’ associated with conditions like MS.
Disability studies scholar Shahd Alshammari, writing of her own experience with MS, attests to the power of images like Laycock’s to show something about a condition that is difficult ‘to capture, tame or hold down’. This is not just about recording physical symptoms but the disturbance to someone’s sense of self:
Typical of MS, this is not my body, these are not my hands or my feet, and my mind has broken up from my body. The mirror, the tool that identifies me as ‘me,’ that confirms my existence, has failed to reflect my body. As an MS patient, when I look into the mirror in the morning I am searching for fragments of myself. I am also checking for any sudden physical changes, abnormalities.[vii]
Mirrors are central to Awakenings and appear also in Laycock’s previous projects. In her statement accompanying Reconstructing Reality she alludes to the mirror’s place in folklore as ‘a form of trickery or optical allusion in which one reality shifts into another reality’. When she captures the mirror reflecting the sky, she creates the impression of a portal opening up in the brick wall. As Laycock states, ‘There is often the desire to look at our own reflection in a mirror in the hope that we see what we hope and desire for … Sometimes we may hope and desire so much to the extent that these profound wishes reflect outside ourselves and therefore glimpse, momentarily at what we wish for, which could be the wish to see a person again.’[viii]
Such experience of alienation from one’s body, of the body as ‘other-than-me’, is central to Laycock’s use of the mirror. In one image from Awakenings, she is on the floor, naked in front of a mirror. [Figure 6] As in American photographer Francesca Woodman’s picture of a dark tall door cutting her body that is underneath into two halves,[ix] the mirror bisects Laycock’s body. She has explained that one of her MS symptoms is numbness in the lower half of her body and this image, where the feet are presented as if they do not belong to the rest of the body, could be seen as signifying that.[x]
Unlike mirrors and their mythology, skin is not considered to reflect the interior of the self. It is important, nevertheless, as ‘a boundary-object’ connecting the inside and the outside. [xi] Moreover, illness often leaves its marks on the skin so that it communicates like a language a range of experiences through scars, self-harm or wounds. In her project Fragility Laycock has acknowledged the skin as a site of exposure:
Solid as we may appear on the outside the simple fact is our fragility begins with the skin, an element that can appear as delicate as paper … Skin is our make-up, and as long as our skin is seen as a whole, and not torn or wounded, then it hides us from the bare reality of what lies beneath this protective layer, we will in certain circumstances continue to mistreat or use our bodies as a war-zone. [xii]
Three performative images from Awakenings reframe the concept of fragility through the experience of MS. In these psychedelic self-portraits, Laycock lies in a bathtub with colourful paint on her face and body gradually dissolving so that the skin seems to melt or evaporate before our eyes. [Figures 8&9]. The images are highly sensuous even though (using red paint) they evoke the body as war-zone. They recall Francis Bacon’s paintings of blurred and distorted human heads and also Jo Spence’s Final Project after she had been diagnosed with leukaemia: in one of Spence’s layered images, wearing only a black swimsuit, she lies against an ocean-blue background overlaid with a scene from an operation table. Closer to Laycock’s decaying portraits, in her Final Project Spence reframed some of her earlier breast cancer photographs using effects (for example a peeling wall) that marked her ailing body with symbolic ruin.[xiii]
Other photographs in Awakenings convey a sense of escape from bodily constraints. Yet in her artist’s statement Laycock mentions that she once read of ‘a mother that had just been told her son had taken his own life, and how that was the first time in 15 years that she wasn’t aware of her condition, the first time she forgot about its suffocating presence. How this news was sadly the only thing able to break through and finally beat her disease’. As Laycock continues, ‘in July 2015 I looked for that same breakthrough.[xiv] Not for the wrenching heartache for a loved one that had taken their own life, but for a single moment when I could forget my condition was there.’ The single moment of release from bodily limitations or of forgetting comes close to being experienced as drowning in Laycock’s bath images, making her wonder whether this is what it takes to achieve liberation from a numb body.[xv]
Laycock’s series of disintegrating bodies captures vividly features that are typical of MS but in an experiential or lived way. The body attacking itself, which is what characterises immune-mediated disease, is difficult to conceptualise by many patients, and medical interpretations are often deemed inadequate; in visualising this process, Laycock prioritises sensations and feelings rather than biomedical data or statistics. As Oliver Sacks explains, citing E.M. Forster, art has a therapeutic power as strong as drugs but does not function in the same way; the ‘creative impulse’ has to be released before it can gradually start to act, just as is perhaps suggested in Laycock’s images of a body that effervesces. Unlike drugs which work in ‘some partial and mechanical way,’ Laycock’s art ‘evokes a self’ and a world.[xvi]
About Stella Bolaki
Dr Stella Bolaki is Senior Lecturer in American Literature in the School of English at the University of Kent. She is the author of Unsettling the Bildungsroman: Reading Contemporary Ethnic American Women’s Fiction (Rodopi, 2011) and the co-editor, with Chris Gair of Disability and the American Counterculture, a special issue of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (forthcoming, 2015), co-editor, with Sabine Broeck, of Audre Lorde's Transnational Legacies (University of Massachusetts Press, forthcoming, 2015), and co-editor, with Derek Ryan, of Contradictory Woolf: Selected Papers from the Twenty-first Annual International Virginia Woolf Conference (Clemson University Digital Press, 2012).
Note: An extended version of this article by Dr. Bolaki exploring the themes addressed here appears as the Editor’s Choice and cover piece in the British Medical Journal’s Medical Humanities, March 2017, 43-1.
[i] Oliver Sacks, Awakenings, London: Picador, 2012, 230-1.
[ii] Sacks, Awakenings, 231.
[iii] Skype interview with Hannah Laycock, 22 May 2016.
[iv] Laycock, ‘Artist’s Statement,’ http://www.hannahlaycock.com/Portfolio/Awakenings.aspx
[v] Sacks, Awakenings, 241.
[vi] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, London: Penguin, 1991.
[vii] Email correspondence with author, 16 June 2016.
[viii] Laycock, ‘Artist’s Statement,’ http://www.hannahlaycock.com/Portfolio/Reconstructing-Reality.aspx
[ix] Francesca Woodman, Untitled (1975-80).
[x] Skype interview with Hannah Laycock, 22 May 2016.
[xi] Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey, ‘Introduction,’ in Thinking through the Skin, ed. Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey, London: Routledge, 2.
[xii] Laycock, ‘Artist’s Statement,’ http://www.hannahlaycock.com/Portfolio/Fragility.aspx
[xiii] See Jo Spence, Jo Spence: The Final Project, ed. Louisa Lee, Manchester: Riding House, 2013.
[xiv] Laycock, ‘Artist’s Statement,’ http://www.hannahlaycock.com/Portfolio/Awakenings.aspx
[xv] Skype interview with Hannah Laycock, 22 May 2016.
[xvi] Sacks, ‘Neurology and the Soul.’