A loop’s strangeness, writes Douglas Hofstadter in his introspective meditation on self-hood, I am a strange loop (2007), ‘comes purely from the way in which a system can seem to “engulf itself” through an unexpected twisting-around, rudely violating what we had taken to be an inviolable hierarchical order’. As becomes clear throughout altered, Tony Heaton’s major solo exhibition currently showing at Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery, loops – both strange and familiar – are a similar preoccupation for the artist and disability rights campaigner.
With altered, Heaton’s exploration of the disabled person’s experience is stated in both complex and expansive terms. Personal and communal experiences unfold and interleave with socio-political attitudes and actions, charting how institutions and individuals have changed (or failed to change) in their interactions with this diverse cohort.
Indeed the entirety of the show’s first room is dominated by Heaton’s own borrowed avatar – a repurposed British confectionary staple, ‘the mint with the hole’, whose embossed text Heaton jumbles, turning ‘POLO’ into a self-describing and forever-turning ‘LOOP’. In the co-staging of ‘Sweet Meeting’ (2007) and ‘Suite: Fruits’ (2019), Heaton situates the former, a stately older sculpture which beautifully realises the humble polo mint in Carrara marble, amidst fiberglass and jesmonite casts of that self-same object in glossy pinks and purples. The grave(n) heft of the former, with the language of monuments and mausoleums, becomes transformed in its hide-and-seek interplay with the toyetic and mouth-watering appeal of the latter.
There is language at play here too. Titles change meaning and homonyms displace one another, whilst the euphony of doubled vowels offers a satisfying taste of the personal pleasures and temptations of shape, sound and movement. Heaton extends this light-heartedness into parody with both ‘Sweet Deceit’ (2022), a gicleé print take on René Magritte’s ‘La Trahison des Images’ (1929), and ‘Suite: Fruit’ (2021), an acrylic rendering of the polo in the now-ubiquitous Warholian style.
Central to this room of loops, reposing on one of the gallery’s permanent circular plinths, is ‘Serpent Form’ (2005). This is a singular work, both in terms of the show and the artist’s oeuvre. Carved directly into a slab of marble, a fleshy snake encircles and envelops an eye, slowly constricting it, piercing its centre. The sculpture’s adroit positioning allows light from the gallery entrance to penetrate its core, suggesting at once both a biological threshold, the amniotic sac or the scleral wall, as well as the diaphanous quality of a sculpted veil. As one moves around the work each lap confirms an imperfect ouroboros, where the feeling of pressure and harm is dreadfully increased.
Further examples of direct-carving in Heaton’s ‘Zen…’ series (2005-2019) abound in the second room. In ‘Zen Girls’ (2019) a pair of self-supporting bodies hold themselves in a seated position, back-to-back, with no other means of assistance. We are reminded that to sustain one’s own body weight is an extraordinary feat more possible for some than others. Read as an exploration of power, both of the individual and the community, these sculptures are bold and effective totems that celebrate those groups that coalesce around shared experiences of disability and networks of support.
It is in the sparing use of detail however, that these forms become truly active within the imagination. The use of a frosting chisel to create the subtle suggestion of pubic hair, for example, scrutinises those pervasive attitudes of de-sexualisation and infantilisation common to disabled lives. Or where plurality of experience is explored, for example in ‘Zen Men’ (2005), through the twinning of a Rodanian ‘thinker’ back-to-back with an uncomfortable-looking everyman. And, no more so than in the case of ‘You Laugh….’ (2021), where the plinth gains wheels, uniting industrial design aesthetics – function added to form – with ideas of individual mobility as well as the visceral realities of the hospital bed and medical gurney.
‘White on White – Barbara, Johnny and the Quiet Revolution’ (2002) harnesses that hallowed tool of establishment preservation, the white conservationist’s glove, to tell a brief but compelling story using the syntax of British Sign Language (BSL). Eight pairs and one spare glove are held in permanent address, fixed with small stitches to a sheet of conservation board. Non-BSL readers apprehend these gestures in the abstract – a motion, a wave, a pinch – rather than in their linguistic flow, confronted with both the luxury of their ignorance and its attendant peril. The language of condescension meets that of action to challenge hierarchies of power.
Standing in counterpoint to this selectively subtle entreaty, the uncanny red ziggurat of ‘Shaken, Not Stirred’ (1992) looms large at the rear of the room. This mountain of red charity collection tins is freighted with a timely and timeless message. The work was first staged as part of the Block Telethon campaign, which fought for British disabled people’s control of how they were viewed by the UK media and society. Here, Heaton asks the viewer to consider the role that charitable interventions play in stalling positive change, fixing experiences of shame and unequal participation. The objects themselves are pregnant with extraordinary, dangerous potential. One can almost hear the rattle of coins inside each box where feelings of guilt and pity conceal themselves. Significantly, the quality of the accompanying black-and-white photographic record of Heaton’s 1992 performance is so murky and indistinct as to suggest images from another age, yet still the mountain (re-assembled) endures today. ‘Shaken’ delivers a powerful one-two blow alongside ‘Damaged (Five Giants)’ (2019), a shattered key-stone emblazoned with William Beveridge’s blithely reductive checklist of obstacles to economic and social prosperity, each work serving as a crushing reminder that ‘well-intentioned’ charity often seizes the wheel of social justice.
Emerging from this same period, ‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair’ (1994) is the sculpture for which the artist is perhaps best known. Exploding two ancient Vessa Variant wheelchairs into an impressively accurate reference map of mainland Britain, the sculpture is one of those almost-too-perfect artworks. Deft aesthetics, misery, humour and social comment all coalesce beneath a clever title. With ‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair’ Heaton unpacks and recycles the complexities of the ready-made, presenting real questions of choice and agency amidst so much frivolousness and play.
Nestled discretely within alcoves to the right of the gallery, Heaton also presents two pieces of light-art, each in cruciform (or ‘rood’, to use the artist’s own playful lexeme) configuration. ‘Tragic/Brave’ (2019) fuses its titular adjectives, mock-glorifying the linguistic choices that encircle disabled communities, at equal turns patronising and objectifying. Likewise ‘A Bigger Ripple’ (2021), a nauseating pink crossword, the light from which drenches all that it touches. A ravishing advert-cum-insult, charm and disgust combine in the agitative tradition of fellow Grundy alumna Tracey Emin, whose work has also been shown at the Grundy and entered the collection. Both works return to the gallery for this show, having previously appeared here in the 2019 National Disability Art Collection & Archive (NDACA) exhibition Anger and Rights from the Disability Arts Movement, with an iteration of the latter having been acquired by the Grundy via a grant from the Arts Fund. The sometime-risk for artworks that fall into the black holes of permanent collections is that they become frozen in time. Not so in the case of this acquisition, which is already poised to continue its journey on to Bury Art Museum’s show The Lights, due in autumn 2022.
As altered completes its turn then – closing its loop – this rich and challenging show leaves both its viewer and itself transformed. Significant, complex and impactful art which reminds us that, to borrow a final quotation from Hofstadter, ‘we human beings… are unpredictable self-writing poems – vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful’.
Daniel Newsham is an artist and writer currently based in Manchester.
Altered continues at The Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, until 24 September 2022.
This review is supported by The Grundy Art Gallery.
 Gerard Goggin and Helen Meekosha, ‘Desexualising disabled people in the news media’ in The Routledge Handbook of Disability and Sexuality (Routledge, 2020).