Q&A With Geoffrey Harrison: An Interview with the Art and Science Journal
Geoffrey Harrison is a painter specializing in figuration and anatomy that has recently discussed his residencies in London with us. Check out the video above (password is geoff) and the interview below to see what he has to share:
Lea Hamilton: Could you elaborate on your experience at your residency(ies?) What was it like to work with those specimens? Did you feel the environment influenced your body of work in the creative process itself as well as the content?
Geoffrey Harrison: I had been going into the Pathology Museum at St Bart’s for a while to look at the specimens and draw. I’d been working with anatomical images since I had a show at the Art Workers’ Guild in 2010 which was called ‘in the midst of life’. It was a series of paintings of dead animals. It sounds pretty grim, but was actually all about beauty and life. In some of the paintings it wasn’t clear whether the animal was alive or dead, while in others, it was pretty clear. I think these more explicitly visceral images led me towards the work I produced for the Bloomsbury Festival in 2011, which was an installation of very large drawings of ‘intestinal’ loops. I happened to be introduced to some people from the museum a huge nineteenth century, three story high, purpose built hall with galleried walkways on two upper levels. Somehow it is hidden away up a shabby staircase in a corner of the hospital. The shelves are crammed with specimens and the atmosphere is fairly unique but I was quite familiar by then with human specimens as both my parents had been Medical Illustrators, so I felt quite at home. It was a nice place to draw and the environment retained a Victorian atmosphere, which may have influenced me.
The more I discovered about the specimens however - the human aspect; the who and why and where and so on, the less I was at ease. I was pleased about that though. I didn’t want to get blasé about seeing such challenging things and really felt that it was important to still have an emotional response to the specimens. Much of the forensic collection have particularly sad and violent backstories, which brought a lot of that emotional content. I think that has carried through to the work I am doing now, which although not entirely focused on gross anatomy and specimens.
Working in both institutions has been really interesting experience. At the Museum, it was mainly a place for me to go and sketch and draw inspiration from. It was about the space and the contents. I ended up producing a series of work which I showed there and which has since been shown in a few other places and is due to travel overseas this year. The experience at the RVC has been more immersive and about the people and processes in the college as well as the objects that tend to attract my attention. In addition to producing artwork, I am involved in funding applications, public engagement and art teaching.
LH: How long has the concept of autopoiesis influenced your work?
GH: I started working with this concept perhaps before I realised it. I had long been in the habit of reducing the images I worked with to singular entities, which I eventually described as islands or archipelagos. In this way I was approaching this idea of margins and boundaries around things. I became a bit preoccupied with this idea of where one things ends and another begins and started to think about body parts and processes in this way. I think the work on islands really led to this because even though visually the things I was painting, animals, chairs, they were all surrogates for the human body, and by extension, the individual as a separate entity, self sufficient and isolated.
Of course, we are an interdependent species. We may kid ourselves that we are self-sufficient, and independent but like the hermit crabs I studied, we are actually totally dependent on a community and a bunch of other creatures. I have a compulsion to delineate and isolate, while at the same time recognising that the world doesn’t really work like that. Things are intricately linked and don’t necessarily end in crisp lines. Margins are blurred and diffuse as the seashore where the water percolates through the sand. You can’t really separate the two if you look closely enough. I recognise this and yet I am still drawn to delineate and classify. Is this cognitive dissonance?
Anyway, I wanted to somehow illustrate this paradox and create images of things that appear feasible as whole enclosed systems, but that aren’t possible. While doing some drawings of intestinal looking organs that were complete loops, like Mobius strips I was looking at M. C. Escher and I came across a book called ‘I am a Strange Loop’ by Douglas Hofstadter. His work led me to the concept of Autopoiesis, which I thought was an ideal description for my work and liked that it was relevant to mathematics and biology as well as philosophy and sociology.
LH: Both of your residencies (at Bart’s Pathology Museum and The Royal Veterinary College) are sort of hidden and tucked away. Given your interest in isolation, is that partly what drew you towards these residencies, or was it more based on past experience with anatomy and medical illustration?
GH: I’m not sure that I consciously made an effort to find places to work that were hidden away, but perhaps that made more more interested in them. I think I was fortunate enough to be introduced to these places as a result of similar work before, which yea, is probably all down to the Medical Illustration thing. It seems to be one continuum. Perhaps it will all loop back to the beginning at the end.
LH: How do you personally view the anatomical collections that you work with? Do they lean more toward being curiosities, or do they present themselves as preserved, perpetual objects?
GH: That’s a really interesting question. The nature of the ‘curious’ must depend on the viewer. I don’t see the specimens themselves as curious. Interesting and fantastic in some cases, yes, but I’d think I was being lazy if I stopped at curious, like I was simply noting an odd shaped vegetable. Some of the medical and veterinary specimens that I spend my time with are still relevant in a practical educational sense, while others are pretty much redundant in the face of trends of disease or medical progress. For some people, however, preserved specimens of unusual afflictions are gonna have a kind of ‘fairground sideshow’ quality and will remain curiosities, but if that inspires people to look beyond the bizarre and freakish and contemplate the ‘science’, that’s great.
Pickling and even plastination fundamentally change the nature of the specimen, so they aren’t really preserved verbatim. They are altered and won’t last forever anyway.
LH: I find it interesting that you have such great interest in self-sustaining objects, but the actual anatomical specimens that you study need to be carefully preserved and sustained by others. Is this boundary between sustaining and preserving blurred or disrupted by your interaction with the objects and subsequent created artworks? Do they become ‘fresh’ again, or is the boundary even relevant?
GH: Perhaps I am casting a fresh eye on the subject, which might give someone an alternative perspective, but I also think that while the specimens stay immutable (and this is not always the case) a med student, for example, may look at it one day and see one thing and the next something completely different according to the page they are on in their textbook. There are many ways to refresh a perspective. I think this boundary is totally relevant. That’s an intriguing boundary there. The point at which the world changes when we understand something about it. Secrets divulged, innocence lost. Hmmm.
I’m not sure this answers the question but I got intrigued by the idea of ‘fresh again’ when I was studying cane toads that had been squashed by traffic on an island where I used to live. The flattened corpses used to desiccate in the heat, but whenever it would rain, the amphibian hydrophilic skin would rehydrate and they’d become fresh again. In the end though, they’d disintegrate to nothing. The objects in the jar are in a very gradual state of deterioration. I think the fact that they continually need maintenance and care belies their ultimate impermanence. Someone will forget to top them up, they’ll spring a leak or get dropped. They are only going one way. Mind you, there is a pretty healthy looking specimen in the Barts’ collection that dates from the 1700s, so the journey to dust is longer for some than others…