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  • @margaretambridgeart

19 July - 16 August 2019

BENEATH

My life as a practicing artist and as a physiotherapist working in palliative care are inseparable.

My voice is my art; the privilege of my work in palliative care is being privy to the many intimate and sometimes confronting conversations that ultimately define who we are.

Last year a close friends’ niece asked me to follow her journey through cancer. I had very mixed emotions about embarking on this journey. I felt privileged to be asked, but at the same time concerned about how I might navigate this difficult space without being voyeuristic, or in some way taking ‘artistic advantage’ of the situation.

At a similar time, at work, I visited a palliative patient in their home, to start an exercise program. I walked in the door, and immediately could see he was dying. His wife didn’t realise. For the next few hours I sat with them both. We talked about how they met, how he courted her, and what they had shared in their life. Initially I found the experience quite harrowing, but on reflection I found it to be an absolute privilege.

I had a conversation with her that I have not had with some of my closest friends and family. And from this ‘Beneath’ started – the chance to open conversations normally not had, to step into others’ private worlds, and the opportunity to understand how our most intimate relationships inform and shape who we are.

The 34 participants were asked a series of questions about the people they had let into their intimate space, those who they have laid their head down next to in life, both physically and metaphorically. I asked them questions about their first love or infatuation, and what remained with them. I asked them about subsequent relationships, their trajectory, and how those relationships informed their current relationship or where they found themselves now.

While photographing them I asked if they could think about someone who was important to them, and what their first impressions were when they met. I was looking for the moment when they were lost in their own memories. When drawing their portraits I could not help but reflect on our conversations, what were they thinking, and wondering if I was capturing something of the conversation in my drawing?

Trying make sense of these relationships and conversations as an artist, working on fabric, was an incredibly difficult journey. Each sheet and pillowcase put its own demands on me. There were times when I wanted to give up on a particular piece of fabric – too hard to work with, too much of its own history, too old. The old fabrics were much harder to draw on; they were not receptive, they were unforgiving, the charcoal ‘bounced’ off the strong warp/weft, and the newer fabric mixes too smooth, the charcoal skimming across them, allowing no mistakes, no second chances. And like an older man commented, who liked the firmness of young flesh, the fabrics had an elasticity that was very hard to ‘pin down’.

I did not fully consider the expectations that accompanied a person’s portrait. And these were intimate portraits. Lying down, an unfamiliar and vulnerable view point for both the participant and the observer. I would look at their images, and think, even if I reproduced this accurately it would not look like the person as I know them. Who would accept that, who would not?

I have distilled these conversations in the video work. The arc of the video follows the young looking forward, the marriages, children, affairs, breakups, new relationships later in life and the old looking back.

I started off with an embedded assumption there was such a thing as love, and quickly realised the concept of ‘love’ may not have any meaning to some, and that the assumption that we all understand love in the same way is a ‘construct’. I was surprised how few were loving couples of long-term and was challenged by the confronting nature of some of the conversations. I found it hard to find a comfortable space at times, being confronted by my own moral boundaries and struggling with how to reflect their intentions without judging them.

The generosity of those who joined this journey with me has been overwhelming. I hope that those who visit the exhibition might find a way to open a conversation with someone close to them that perhaps they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

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