Correspondence between myself and Gilly Angell, patient care representative, UCH
My response to Gilly’s comments are in bold.
thank you for your email. i will answer your points in the body of the text below. I am working in Poland this week with only intermittent internet access so may not be able to respond as quickly as I would like.
On 5 Aug 2011, at 14:48, GILLY ANGELL wrote:
I have just re read your initial brief and looked at the work in progress.
I offer these thoughts so far on the art work that you are developing as my response from the perspective of someone living with cancer.
My initial reaction to the slides was one of horror. I do not need to see how my cancer externally manifests. The logic of the ever growing city is that as with cancer if left untreated there is a nuclear explosion as the body/city is overcome and dies. I see that there is small redemptive element emerging. Wonderful.
Thank you very much for your input, I am concerned that my early work on this project has caused such a reaction, it was completely unintentional. I have shown these drawings to the other cancer patients who have come in to my studio and asked for a response, none indicated such a strong reaction to me. I am at an early stage of the work, so what you see now is definitely not the end product. I am trying to balance a subjective, personal approach with a global approach. The Wellcome trust is funding me specifically to contribute to the public understanding of cancer so whether what I am doing succeeds in this or not it is necessary to look at cancer as a phenomenon from my own artistic perspective. It is really important to get the balance right and I think I will get closer to this as I progress.
There is a wider debate to be had here regarding the relationship between the intrinsic value of the artistic vision and the instrumental value of the artists work when situated within a particular public audience.
The statement “ Is cancer the price we pay for the freedom to evolve into more complex form?” In a word I would say no and I think it is flawed philosophically. In world sacred literature there are no references to cancer being the route to the highest states of consciousness. Equally one can be free spiritually and still get cancer. Yes through the journey of cancer there are many profound philosophical and spiritual endeavors to experience as there are with any life-changing event and illness. To say per say that cancer is our price for attainment of the state of bliss/ Nirvana is a non-starter. I was told many times whilst in hospital the reason that I had cancer – because I was not a good person. That may be so, but I do not need an external source to start validating the reason why I have become ill. I as the individual still have free will and with that comes huge responsibility of how and why I chose to live my life. On the other side of your statement one could then say that for all of you who do not develop cancer you will never attain the state of bliss. I think both are a very bleak view of the human condition.
I feel there is some misunderstanding occurring here. My statement “Is cancer the price we pay for the freedom to evolve into more complex forms?” was not said on a personal individual level but on a biological/scientific level, I am saying that cellular mutation is a fact of evolution and speciation, if there were no cellular mutation life on earth could not have evolved into complex beings like us. I am not talking on a personal level. I am not saying anything at all about personal spiritual matters, I would not dream of being so arrogant as to have any opinion about anyones personal approach to cancer apart from my own. The idea that cancer is somehow the fault of the sufferer is absolutely abhorrent to me! And if someone was suggesting to me in hospital or anywhere else that cancer was somehow my fault I would consider it out of order. I certainly in no way suggest that someone who does not get cancer will not attain a ‘state of bliss’. I am quite dumfounded at this interpretation.
What I am trying to say at this early stage of the work is that cancer is a consequence of an organism’s necessity to grow and evolve biologically, that it is a natural phenomenon as detrimental for a person and a body as much as an earthquake or tsunami is detrimental for a population and a region. An earthquake is a consequence of plate tectonics which is also a process that recirculates the elements between the crust and the mantle, which seems also a necessary aspect of the planet’s dynamic and complex system. I am trying to look at cancer as an embedded and contextually comprehensible complex system. I am also saying that we all run the risk of getting cancer and that the business of living is in some ways a precarious one. I am sorry that what i am saying came across in this unintended way and I will try to amend the text in order to make things much clearer.
One of the questions that interests me is could gaining an understanding of cancer as a complex system have an impact on a cancer patients comprehension of what is occurring to them? I am moving toward thinking about the representation of the curing and recovery from cancer and over the next weeks and months you should start to see this emerge. One thing that has been holding me back a little is not having had enough consultation with oncologists and specialists to gain an understanding of the way that the various therapies work to heal cancer, this is something I will get on to in the next weeks and months as well.
Within the dynamic of the treatment of cancer there is the medical team, the patient and the family/ friends. Each will have their own perspective and expectation of the diagnosis of cancer and equally depending on what form of cancer it is again there are many different routes that will be taken. At the heart of the biology is a cell, which is multiplying. For the scientist who looks down the microscope there is awe and wonder that this patient is presenting with such a complex cancer. I am sure that they will marvel at your portrayal of the cancer cells because they are one removed, their bodies their cells are not involved. For the patient who has been given the diagnosis many things happen. There is an emotional shut down/explosion but the most visceral thing is that one is aware that one is mortal. Death has, maybe, will arrive sooner than the three score years and ten. Please be aware that however much improvement had been made and will continue to be made in cancer research there will always be for the patient that initial and profound reaction to death. The end. No more. The terror in is indescribable. For some patients they will be able to transcend and come to a state of equanimity about their cancer diagnosis. Many will not.
As someone who has been touched by the deaths of family members and friends to cancer I completely respect your perspective but at the same time I do feel it is important to explore different the aspects implications of cancer as part of a rigorous artistic investigation. I take very seriously your point that the perspectives of cancer sufferers has to be taken into account and they already are even if this is not yet so apparent in the work.
The best clinicians are those who are immersed with humanity. There is gentleness and holding of the patient who knows that however deep the terror of the treatment is ,there is a lifeline ,a support that will allow them to be gently guided into shore towards life or death.
Never forget that as cancer patients we are extremely venerable. Ethically one has to be careful not to retraumatize.
I could not agree more with what you say about vulnerability, care and ethical responsibility but I do feel to properly address the big questions raised by cancer, various perspectives need to be aired at least in the research phase even if they are not easy.
The Tgasali of North America have a wonderful saying about life ” that you cannot know another’s life until you have walked 10,000 miles in the their foot steps.”
I look forward to a continual dialogue with you and wish you well on this profound and life changing art residency. Good luck.
Best wishes Gilly Angell.
Gilly I hope that I have adequately addressed your concerns and I look forward to working with all parties over the next months to produce work that satisfies the concerns of patients, scientists and the general public.