What Once Was Imagined
Royal College of General Practitioners
Pills and tablets of all sizes, colours and functions are inextricably woven into the fabric of our lives, is the diagnosis of textile artist Susie Freeman and medical professional Dr Liz Lee, for which they have prescribed an impactful dose of art in a touring exhibition entitled What Once Was Imagined.
The idea that we are over-medicated is nothing new. Damien Hirst exhibited his own pharmacy in the '90s. Jonathan Franzen in his 2001 novel The Corrections mixed share-price cynicism and end-of-life hope in the promise of a new wonder drug. And in more clear-eyed fashion, the BBC's Dr Van Tulleken brothers won few friends when they challenged GPs to prescribe less and patients to do more. But if we are used to swallowing this pill, it is in no small part down to the collaboration between Freeman and Lee, who first came to prominence for their work specially commissioned by the British Museum, Cradle to Grave (2003), an epic story of the average man and woman in the language of the pills they take (each about 14,000 of them!) from birth to death. You can still see this enormous pharmacological timeline in room 24 of the British Museum.
Around thirty smaller pieces from Freeman and Lee's collaboration, Pharmacopeia, can be found in the bowels of the Royal College of General Practitioners, where in the twists and turns, niches and corridors of this modern, bright, busy functional building, they command an improbably reflective space.
The form of the artwork usually follows a disarmingly simple premise; a common textile - a dress, a bag, a scarf - is hand knitted out of a fine mesh, like a mosquito net, and fitted all over with tiny pockets. In each pocket is placed a prescription drug. Largest among the textiles is not a common item of clothing at all, but an enormous suit of armour composed of iridescent pill packaging. The pieces can double as eye-opening biomedical factsheets and wry social commentary; such is the case with a wedding dress made up of 6,000 contraceptive pills, an amount that provides contraception for a woman from the age of 22 to 50.
The title, What Once Was Imagined, nods to William Blake who wore his scepticism of modern science as a panacea like his own suit of armour. The artwork, too, which consists for the most part of Freeman's signature netting recalls Blake's Urizen mythology, its webs, knotted meshes and 'fibres of blood, milk and tears'.
These fibres are present in each of the works which incorporate the real prescribing record of one of Lee's patients (Dr Lee is a member of the RCGP and has a practice in Bristol) and their stories are told alongside the artwork. Undoubtedly the most moving piece is Table Talk: intimate reflections printed on linen napkins, shrines of personal artefacts and a timeline of evolving prescription drugs combine to tell the history of HIV in the UK, the fear, the stigma, the suffering and hopelessness, amid the steady advancements in treatment. It is a beautiful and compelling work.
Join the Knowledge Quarter Private View of the exhibition: Wednesday, 7 August, 8:30-10:00
Royal College of General Practitioners, 30 Euston Square, NW1 2FB