Atopic Dermatitis On The Ear 1 Enlarge
Atopic dermatitis on the ear © Professor Raimo Suhonen. Used by DermNet New Zealand with permission

It’s thin. Skin is a weird thin thing. Hearing descriptions of it boiling, tearing, drying, creasing, crumbling, bleeding, my own is now crawling.

ECZEMA!, a new performance written and directed by Maria Fusco reflecting on the artist’s own relationship to this skin condition—commissioned as part of the 70th anniversary of the NHS and performed at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff—was accompanied by a day of ‘cultural, clinical and creative perspectives on skin’. Not having any experience of eczema myself, this additional material from multiple voices provided a broad and yet also appropriately myopic perspective on this skin condition (of which 10% of adults are affected in the UK). Contributions ranged from notions of shame at the skin’s visible illnesses and imperfections (in an extract from Thinking Through the Skin, edited by Sarah Ahmed & Jackie Stacey, read by Amelia Stubberfield amid awkwardly funny eczema puns) to the potentially gendered nature of attitudes towards skin imperfection (mentioned in passing by Sinéad Langan, in her Reflections on Adult Eczema). Naomi Segal spoke of the widely presumed innocuousness of the itch, how we can see an itch as comic in comparison to the tragedy with which we view pain. Dermatology Professor Hywel Williams performed a piano piece written especially for the event, titled ‘The Bond of Eczema’, thematically connected to Fusco’s own notion of a ‘co-occupation' with eczema, discussed during the closing conversation between the artist and Heike Roms.

I mention this accompanying program as it scaffolded the performance of ECZEMA!, comprising a collection of thoughts and perspectives on the skin in general, and the practical realities of living with eczema. Rarely have I experienced an accompanying program perform such a precise role in priming both body and mind—to use this tired dualism—for experiencing an artwork. Naomi Segal spoke of the neutrally gendered nature of skin, and throughout both the talks and the performance, the fact that every one of us in the room was sat in our own flesh jackets, brought on the sense of both an intense insularity and a strange collectivity. As the piece began, my skin was primed.

It’s difficult to pinpoint any singular moment from the performance as it was, in its own way, an onslaught of ideas, and at the same time also a very minutely observed engagement with this widely suffered skin condition. It consisted of spoken word performed by actor Rhodri Meilir accompanied by the composer and experimental musician John Harris on organ. The pipes sited at the back of the hall gave a disconcerting sense of the organ’s sound being part of the room itself, rather than coming from any one speaker system or source. The script unfolded through a series of vivid diaristic episodes: of newly opened scabs sticking to the sheets after a night of scratching; the sheer quantity of emollients, moisturisers and steroids weighing down carrier bags on the trip back from the chemist; trying to apply a plaster to a fresh cut that won't stick due to emollient-thick skin; the embarrassment felt in close proximity to the ‘complete parchment’ of perfect skin; the inescapability and humiliation of having to open yourself up to medical scrutiny. In turn, the piece also engaged with feelings of anxiety, of the incessant presence of never being able to escape or hide from yourself, and the alien phenomenology of the body (‘my mad skin is cheating itself’).

In the closing conversation between Maria Fusco and Heike Roms, Fusco spoke of approaching the organ as the eczema, not as a metaphor or stand-in, referencing transubstantiation as a kind of working methodology for this peculiar becoming. At the climax of the piece, amid an onrush of weirdly precise albeit abstract analogies of eczema (‘a swarm of diamonds… a sick constellation… the sun’s core… an intimate snowglobe… a bloody bark… a radical turnover…’), the organ as a character came to the fore, and seemed to writhe directly beneath the words. As the volume of both speech and organ rose in unison, the organ seemed suddenly intimately connected to the words spoken. Having previously functioned in a somewhat subliminal manner, adding textural auditory unease, it now appeared to be fighting to be heard. Matching each eczema analogy’s syllables through a MIDI link connecting back into itself, the organ both disrupted and enhanced the barrage of this final delivery, muddling the sense of the words like tectonic plates slipping at once below, and then above Meilir’s speech. It was a powerful enactment of a phrase used in some of the promotion surrounding the piece, ‘The skin is an organ. The organ is a skin.’ 

Like the best kinds of body horror, this experience of skin crawling had a real physical thrill to it, but the performance also left me with a wealth of empathy for those friends and loved ones who are living—or are in co-occupation—with eczema.

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ECZEMA! premiered at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, 28 July 2018. Commissioned by the National Theatre of Wales for NHS70 Festival.

Sam Playford-Greenwell is an artist, writer and musician who lives in Bristol. They mainly work collaboratively, as co-editor with Tom Prater on the artist-led journal Doggerland, as joint custodian of The Viriconium Palace project space in Bristol with Lucie Akerman, and make music with Oliver Sutherland under the name Bunnies.