Three artists were selected to take part in Step Up Interpreting Collections at the Wellcome Collection. Interpreting Collections aims to provide participants with the skills to research and interpret works of art, individuals choose an area of research from the collections. In today’s blog we hear from Jackie Bennett, one of the participants, and her experience so far of the course.
Now more than half-way through the Outside In Step-Up programme at the Wellcome Collection, I am having a such great time reading, writing and responding through my artistic practice. The task on offer was to research any object we chose from the Medicine Man exhibition and be ably supported in doing so by the Outside In team, Julia, Hannah and Harry and a multitude of Wellcome Collection staff in various roles. The object I have chosen is a Japanese acupuncture figure. It is likely to be from the Seventeenth century and is made from papier-mâché. It was used as a teaching model for students of acupuncture and has the points and meridians marked on it.
The choice of object was not clear from the start as the intriguing exhibits on display are so diverse, it was hard to know what to focus on. Also, my personal interests and approaches to the exhibition were equally diverse. My instinct was to photograph anything that caught my eye in a sort of “Supermarket Sweep” grab of images (our time in the exhibition at the first session being limited). I was drawn to African masks and figures, also Asian artefacts, as I have previous knowledge and interest in these areas from my degree in Asian and African Art, years ago. More recently I have been making work related to sight impairment, so a collection of glass eyes also appealed. It was like being in a sweet shop of visual interest.
Not the most attractive figure or object in the exhibition, I eventually chose the acupuncture figure because it somehow spoke to me. (Coincidentally, it was the image that my son chose to put as my lock screen wallpaper when he was helping me set-up the ipad I have been loaned for the duration of the course). I have become interested in Chinese and Japanese medicine lately as I have been having treatment for a long-term shoulder injury that has defied all Western medical interventions and treatments, both through the NHS and privately. Knowing virtually nothing about the traditional Chinese approach, I presented myself for treatment that has been challenging and intriguing. Not understanding how it works but being able to see some significant improvements, I was interested in learning more about the background and history of the Chinese medicine. Acupuncture is one treatment option in a range of traditional Chinese treatments that also spread to Japan. The approach is to treat the whole person not just the physical symptoms.
As a follow-up to our visit to the exhibition, we were taken to the Science Museum store, where most of the Wellcome objects are kept. Searching for objects related to my area of interest, I eventually found one small bronze Chinese acupuncture figure amongst the many treasures. Frustratingly we were not able to touch, let alone move objects so a quick picture and a reference number had to suffice to start a search of the online catalogue. Staff were on hand to help us with some of the background to the collection, which really helped with tracing information, as most of the objects are not well documented. I found several other pre-twentieth century acupuncture figures in the catalogue, as well as many other Chinese and Japanese objects of art and medical objects. The Wellcome collection is so wide and varied, encompassing everything to do with mankind, not just medically related.
The other vast area to explore is the library, again aided by specialist staff who helped us trace books and works on paper related to our areas of interest. Of particular relevance to me was a Seventeenth century book, written by a Dutch doctor who had access to Japanese medical knowledge. The book contains an acupuncture drawing, which has been Westernised, with classical features and the skin peeled back (not how it would have been shown in Japan at the time). It is interesting to me that knowledge of acupuncture spread to the West so early and that there was an interchange of medical knowledge between East and West.
Gaining all this information and insight has been an exciting voyage of discovery. It has taken a while for it to filter through into my own art practice. As I work mainly in weave, I am looking at ways to represent the acupuncture figure, the ideas of energy flow through the meridian channels and the internal and external body. I am weaving an open weave, incorporating Japanese paper and paper yarn. It is still in the sampling stage but I hope to have work to show by the end of the Programme.