In Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (2002), scholar of visual art and media Giuliana Bruno connects the spacio-visual arts to the wild territory of emotion, memory and map-making. Shifting from the optic – the spectacle, the ‘gaze’ – to the haptic, Bruno proposes we are ‘moved’ through inner space by (e)motion pictures. The intimate, subjective psycho-geographic journeys that we experience through art, film and architecture shape our realities and have a lasting emotional impact on our inner lives.1
Similarly, the multi-platform project CONSCIOUS by London-based Chinese artist and filmmaker, Suki Chan, is an immersive experience in which she invites audiences to be ‘moved’. Comprising three films, photography, sculpture and sound, and uniting the viewpoints of scientists with the wider public, Chan unpicks assumptions about individual and collective consciousness, perception, truth and reality with the intention of increasing the audience’s awareness and empathy.
‘Memory’ (2019), in Gallery 1 of the Bluecoat, is a cryptic video installation in which Chan juxtaposes a human life span and deep geological time. Former RAF pilot Dave Linney and historian Robert Turner recount exhilarating and dreadful stories of pilots suspended between life and death. Their gentle voices are overlaid onto shots of dripping subterranean caves, aerial views of Somerset’s brick-like mud flats, and crimson time-lapse confocal imagery inside a fly. As the film zooms out, while Dominik Scherrer’s haunting ambient score lurks in the background, we see the UK’s network of tentacular, glimmering streetlights. This visceral film reveals surprising visual connections between the micro and macro, neurological and geological.
As part of her wider study for CONSCIOUS, Chan worked with people living with dementia. The rest of the exhibition focuses on this collaboration, exploring how memory loss destabilises understandings of one’s surroundings and the present, while simultaneously opening new realities through changes in perception. Galleries 2a and 2b resemble archetypal care homes: pieces of furniture punctuate neutral, carpeted rooms. ‘Hallucinations’ (2020), a two-channel video installation, is the focal point of Gallery 2a. Two screens are affixed side by side, transporting viewers to the realms of two people living with dementia; Pegeen O’Sullivan, who resides in a Belong Care Village in North West England, and Wendy Mitchell, who lives in her own home.
Through intimate details such as raggedy teddy bears, billowing curtain blinds and blooming flowers, Chan delicately explores the hallucinations and distortions of time and self that come with dementia. We see how memories resurface – ghosts of dead relatives are one example – but rather than being alarming, as one might expect, these apparitions bring a sense of comfort. The camera lingers on Pegeen’s and Wendy’s eyes and hands, and trees and water are recurrent tropes – perhaps thoughtful nods to the subconscious. The film concludes with a long canal tunnel sequence as Pegeen reflects on the topic of assisted death, but Chan also explores the protagonists’ hopes, offering a fresh, honest investigation.
‘Fog In My Head’ (2022), a commission by Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network (FLAMIN), is at 36 minutes the longest work in the series. Chan returns to Wendy, who wrote her first book after being diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Viewers journey into Wendy’s ‘fog of dementia’ – a metaphor she uses that conveys the condition’s confusion and isolation. Wendy is eloquent, her articulate narration is entwined with dramatisations of her hallucinations, misperceptions and memories. Imagery of the home, office and forest is connected by a hazy, lingering fog, contrasting with scientific materials that have a surreal quality, including close-ups of developing brain cells and a correspondingly mind-like beehive.
In Gallery 3, Chan presents ‘A Cup of Ye Old Faithful’ (2022), a sound sculpture developed from her residency in a North West Belong Centre Village. A large wooden dining table and matching chairs are positioned in the middle of the room; on top of the table is a jumble of kitschy crockery, in which a variety of speakers are nestled. The speakers relay calm conversations between Chan and residents, families and carers, ranging from the significance of dementia, to how it has changed their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Each container is distinctive; some broken, others repaired, all symbols of individuality and life’s transience. On the walls of Gallery 3 are photographs including the beehive and Pegeen’s and Wendy’s faces. Other photographs are of scientists and laboratories.
Showing alongside CONSCIOUS in Bluecoat’s Gallery 4 is Where the Arts Belong: Making Sense (Of It All). This exhibition explores the organisation’s ongoing project in which a group of artists – Francisco Carrasco, Gav Cross, Alan Dunn, Roger Hill, Philip Jeck, Brigitte Jurack, Mary Prestidge, Jonathan Raisin, and Suki Chan – work creatively with people living with dementia. The exhibition shares the processes, works and responses that span photography, ceramics, audio works and handcrafted books. A reading area laden with relevant texts and a space for the audience to creatively respond are attentive, interactive additions.
Chan’s touch is nimble. Although she subtly raises questions about how we can care for those with dementia, she favours ambiguity, letting her collaborators lead viewers to their own conclusions. But the context of a cruel onslaught on social care arguably recedes into the background. The privatisation of care work and care homes in the last thirty years has grown unchecked, with profit and productivity surpassing concern for the vulnerable. This has been exacerbated by the austerity politics of the past decade. What kind of future do we envisage, bearing in mind that an ageing population means the number of people in need of care will continue to rise?2
CONSCIOUS is deeply respectful and caring, using the immediacy and intimacy of film to flesh out realities that many might not have experienced first-hand. But what does one do with that empathy, that affect? How does one turn it into action? Artists and organisations are stepping in and doing crucial work while public services continue to be cut and sold off, as the Bluecoat’s Where the Arts Belong demonstrates. But, upon exiting the exhibition, I wondered: where is the public outpouring of anger at a system that so flagrantly fails to provide for its most vulnerable adequately?
1 Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (Verso: London, 2018)
2 Emma Dowling, The Care Crisis: What Caused It and How Can We End It? (Verso: London, 2022)
Bethany Holmes is a writer and editor from Merseyside, currently based in London.
Suki Chan: CONSCIOUS and, Where the Arts Belong: Making Sense (Of It All) continue at Bluecoat until 12 June 2022
Neuroscientist Anil Seth and Suki Chan will be in conversation at Bluecoat on June 8th 2022