Appropriately showing in a museum setting rather than a gallery one, this is an exhibition which documents illness. A very particular one.
Susan Donachie’s second child was born premature and sickly. Tests were done and it transpired that not only the new baby girl, but also her mother, her uncle, her grandfather and her brother are all affected by a disease that ‘grows and repeats itself throughout your lifetime, and the severity of the symptoms multiply as it passes through the generations.’ Affecting all the muscles of the body in varying degrees, it is incurable. In this case, because older members of the family have the later onset variety, none had known they were carriers until baby Rhona arrived with the news.
It was a severe blow by any standards. Susan’s sister, Glasgow artist Jacqueline Donachie was found not to be harbouring the one particular chromosome which characterises the disease, but nevertheless decided to shoulder some of the burden. The resulting exhibition, books, and documentary film which collects together world experts’ views on myotonic dystrophy, perhaps lighten the load. Out in the open the threat seems challenged, at bay. With unflinching honesty, Donachie and her collaborators have created a forum where art, science, sufferers and members of the public come together, not just in the gallery, but throughout the process of making the project happen.
The display is focused—clean but not clinical. It might hardly occur at first that this is an integrated installation or that the yellow and black benches covering much of the floor space are sculptures by the artist. Sturdy and low, they have an industrial, down-to-earth scaffolding structure, inviting both conversation and contemplation, both essential components in this arena of scientific debate.
Among photographs and texts, the central attraction is the film. Researched by Donachie and Professor Darren Monckton of the University of Glasgow, it took five years to make, is 20 minutes long and is composed of eleven interviews with eminent scientists active in the field. A classic talking head set-up places words and passion up front. Nothing distracts, apart from the odd intervention by surprising scientific titles on bookshelves behind—Eve’s Rib, False Hopes, Gene Bomb . From the UK, USA, Netherlands, Australia and France, this highly trained army of men and women share common ground—a search for breakthrough understanding and ultimately a cure.
Donachie plays the role of artist quietly, and mindful that for the project’s duration she is part of a single-minded team. Her treatment of the subject is rigorous, and of her family and all others involved, dignified. The message is all. Interviews are dense with information, fascinating in their detail (a book of transcriptions is to be published this year). But while some beautifully shot scenes are in evidence, no sensational effects are on offer—you are asked to bring along your own forensic curiosity to unravel the many relationships, both personal and institutional, which are revealed.
Alice Bain is editor of Map