This last week I have been artist in residence on Oncology ward 12 at Singleton Hospital. I have visited the ‘Kingdom of the Sick’ without a passport, and it has been a challenging, but so very inspirational experience, simultaneously so draining and uplifting. I have felt caught up in an an emotional vortex, and the images and the sounds and the conversations live on in my mind. I have been welcomed and trusted by the staff and by the patients on the ward and they have given me so much.
In this post and all those that follow I want to stress that the all thoughts are my own and borne of my individual experience in relation to the patients, the medical staff and the general experience of being on Ward 12. I will also use (anonymised) quotes from patients and staff alongside excerpts from literature including Solzenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, written in 1968. My fundamental aims with the Cancer Ward 12 project are, as in all of my work, based on mutual respect and the basic human need to relate and share experience. My approach is from an autoethnographic perspective from wherein I have come to understand and appreciate very profoundly a place in between the two Kingdoms of the Sick and the Well, a ‘liminal space’ wherein the extremes of health and ill-health give way to overall experience. This is the place, I believe, where objectivity and subjectivity collide and commune, where mediation through art affords meaning the opportunity to take on a new persona, and where the overall impact of illness cannot be reduced to a clinical conception of disease. Respect for the individual and the meanings and values they live by is a starting point and where some of the things I say or create may be challenging, or controversial, this is only because challenge and controversy is always present where meaningful lives are lived to the full.
While on Ward 12 I have made loose but emotionally charged sketches of individuals who have told me, eloquently, of their fears and their hopes, of their families and their jobs, of their life experiences and of their lives as they were and as they are now. I have listened to and witnessed so much physical and emotional pain and angst, and I have listened to and witnessed so much dignity and determination. The negatives are mitigated by positivity and the sheer force of the human spirit. I have sat with patients who hardly knew I was there, and with patients who seemed very glad that I was there…most of all I listened – even, and perhaps especially hard, to those who could barely speak because of the grip of their cancer. I made copious notes and I recorded the words of those who consented to be involved – those who wanted to add their voices to the project and be heard. Life on the ward seems to play out in a time and in a light of its own. Once I stepped inside the outside world became a shadowy place that even the arrival of families and friends could not enlighten. Within this time and light I have made vivid, almost tangible, memories of a fundamentally subjective experience and I have seen and heard so much – although never too much. The experience as a whole was visceral.
I visited the hospital cafe sometimes during the week just to write up some thoughts and, because I know the place well perhaps from previous projects (Medicine Umasked for example) , it was a comforting place to be. I have come back now into the ‘Kingdom of the Well’ with a powerful sense of responsibility to make something very special of the Cancer Ward 12 project. I am thinking about cartography…not as off track perhaps (if you’ll excuse the pun) as might be thought. I am thinking about emotional mapping – finding ways through the experience of witnessing.
Back in the cafe…I have to come less often as it is expensive! It is strangely comforting however, full of patients with their carers families, in-patients, outpatients, medics…. Often carers will talk at full volume – there is a universal manner it seems, despite the patients needs – half way between speaking to a child and to an adult. Conversation is always slightly ‘elevated’ in mood – cheerful but also resonating sometimes with an underlying tension, frustration, sadness, pain, fear and – I see it in the taught lines of the faces – utter exasperation. But one of the nurses on the ward said: its not right that some people will talk to patients who are sick as if they have dementia.
My first experience of Ward 12 is salutary. The prospect of death maintains a strong presence both in physical and relative terms – the concept of quality over quantity was never so salient.