One of the overarching themes of our permanent gallery Medicine Now is the lived experience of illness. Juxtaposed with objects from clinical medicine, such as pills, anatomical models and teaching aids, are a broad selection of contemporary artworks that invite visitors to consider illness and disease from the viewpoint of patients…
Phantom limbs, colour blindness, dyslexia and multiple sclerosis: these are just some of the many conditions explored by artworks in Medicine Now. But of all the fascinating and thought-provoking pieces on display, by far the most imposing is ‘I Can’t Help the Way I Feel’, by the British artist John Isaacs. A huge, amorphous blob of realistic-looking human fat, complete with hideously swollen legs and blotchy, irritable sores, the sculpture is John Isaacs’ take on the ‘obesity epidemic’ sweeping the developed world, and the reductive, depersonalising dimensions of the worst of clinical medicine.
To say the artwork is huge is an understatement. When it was first installed, all the way back in 2007 when Wellcome Collection first opened its doors to the public (is it only four years ago?!), it was so big it couldn’t fit through the gallery doors, and our curatorial team had to winch it, angel-like, up through the space by the spiral staircase – a bizarre sight, if there ever was one. The artwork tells the story of obesity from the viewpoint of the patient. It represents a living person whose defining features, gender, personal story – in short, everything that makes them unique as an individual – has been systematically removed by an explosion of fat, engulfing the head, the arms, and everything in between. Cleverly sculpted from polystyrene and painted wax, it is so terrifyingly realistic that many visitors mistakenly believe it is a representation of a real-life person, or a very serious genetic disorder. Anything but – it represents plain and simple obesity, albeit obesity that has been taken to the extreme by John Isaacs.
The artwork has a serious point to make. Isaacs is interested in the lived experience of disease – the ‘emotional landscape’ of the individual – and its tense relationship with society. The sculpture doesn’t represent obesity in a real, physical sense, the kind of obesity that presents itself to clinicians or members of the public. It is a literal embodiment of obesity in a highly idealised, abstract form. It represents the feelings of those who live with and confront obesity, and how these feelings are defined in response to social ideals and expectations. It graphically represents what would happen if, somehow, these emotions were to manifest themselves physically, on the surface.
John Isaacs has thus privileged the subjective over the objective dimensions of obesity, and has helped redeem it from the reductive potential of clinical medicine, which, at its extreme, can reduce obesity to merely a set of symptoms, or another set of depressing statistics in the news. The thoughts, feelings and fears of those who live with obesity are often absent from such a presentation of obesity. At its worst, they are discounted altogether. It is easy to see why people can become defined, stigmatised, or even trapped by their condition, if the ways in which they can express their experiences and feelings are so heavily conditioned by the society in which they live – what Isaacs refers to as the ‘emotional landscape’. They really can’t help the way they feel. The most literal example I can think of is the stock footage of obesity you see on the news, when they are ‘objectively’ reporting on the latest comments made by a health expert. You almost never see faces, personal stories, or anything else that identify these people as individuals who are anything other than ‘obese’. All you see is beheaded waistlines and random flashes of disembodied mouths eating hamburgers. Sure, the news has a duty to respect the privacy of the people they are reporting on, which is why these faces are absent in the first place. But a consequence of this is that people become objectified, anonymised, and their personal circumstances and stories are pushed under the surface.
In recent years, campaigners such as Vicki Swinden, founder of the ‘Fat is the New Black’ campaign, have tried to reduce the level of stigma surrounding obesity by re-appropriating the label of ‘fat’ – transforming it, as it were, into a fashion label. The logic behind the campaign is that by giving people the freedom and confidence to express themselves, they are more likely to participate as active members of society, and be physically active as a result. In an age where two thirds of British adults are overweight and where almost a quarter are clinically obese, could it be the case that focussing on the subjective, emotive and psychological elements of obesity has genuine, positive public health benefits?