Shamans and Spirits

Photography and the
Irrational in the Age of Reason


Art as Medicine

Commissioned piece for The Women's Clinic, Harley Street, London 2011

"Disease is in essence the result of conflict between Soul and Mind, and will never be eradicated except by spiritual and mental effort." - Edward Bach, 'Heal Thyself', 1931

The question of how a person heals is an interesting one. Early European visitors to the largely undisturbed American Northwest Native American tribes observed that the ritualised performances of shamans had seemingly miraculous effects on the sick. Indeed Native Americans still maintain that their methods are the deepest and best medicine, using the imagination to access the deeper recess of the patient's soul.

Shamanic objects were said to have such power that ordinary folks dared not touch them. Indeed a shaman was traditionally laid to rest with his head on a box containing all his objects and, until Europeans with no fear of these objects came along to plunder them, these boxes remained in place for decades or even centuries 1.

Group of Northwest Coast wooden objects

This idea of the object-with-curative-power can be traced through the Middle Ages in the use of religious relics, charms, amulets and icons through to the Renaissance when art objects such as paintings and sculpture, begin to be seen as embued with the power of their creator. This is also the time when art history begins, with Vasari's famous 'Lives of the Artists' beginning the process of idolising artists and their works. From the Enlightenment onwards, medicine sought to seperate itself from the superstitions and flagrant charlatans who had come to exploit the sick and needy. The resurgence of faith healing in all its forms is a source of perplexity for medical professionals who see their scientific methods as in opposition to these old fashioned ways. yet the placebo stubbornly remains the most effective drug in the world 3.

Reliquary and skull of Saint Ivo of Kermartin (1253–1303)

'For the Love of God' Damien Hirst, 2007

Art has gone through many permutations in its transformation from a spiritual to a commercial process but the association with ritual remains. Many of the properties of an art object are similar to that of a shamanic item. In art history this is described as the 'Aura' of the object - that which imbues it with a sacrosanct power. Often this has now come to be associated with the originality of the creator-artist2 but in photography, particularly digital imaging, there is no longer an original or 'authentic object'. What then, can the photography carry by way of healing?

From here I can only refer to my own personal experience. I created the Instant Garden series when I was, myself quite ill. In the process of making it, I researched and embedded many ancient sacred symbols associated with healing, eternal life and the spirit. I borrowed geometrical structures from sacred traditions around the world and embedded them into the structure of the images. I looked at the idea of Bach flower remedies - the concept that the 'essence' of flowers could contain curative properties and, wondered if an image also contains a curative 'essence'.

Flower of life
The 'Flower of Life'

This 'healing' aspect of the work was hidden from view. I didn't talk about it in my artist statement or in subsequent interviews for fear of being associated with something too 'New Age' or fake. Yet now I wonder: what is the difference between a fake and a placebo? Indeed, what do these terms actually mean?

For a few years I have noticed that The Instant Garden series has been attractive to consultants working in private clinics and the NHS. In 2010 I worked on a commission for The Women’s Clinic, a fertility clinic in Harley Street where I not only created a lightbox piece for their ultrasound unit, but also worked together with the clinic to place art in spaces where patients may experience stress. In particular I was delighted to bring the ‘Falling’ video work by Neeta Madahar in to the implantation area.

'Falling' video piece by Neeta Madahar, 2005

"..nature alone cures. Surgery removes the bullet out of the limb, which is an obstruction to cure, but nature heals the wound."- Florence Nightingale, 'Notes on Nursing' 1860

In recent months I have been doing more research into the possibilities of art contributing to the well being of patients in hospitals. When I was in hospital, I looked around at the bare white walls and wished for a more human, warmer environment in which to undergo surgery. Most of us unthinkingly associate hospitals with the colour white but why is this so? It is an idea that has been challenged to the root by theorists such as Michel Foucault and yet this ideology persists. In 2001 I curated an exhibition called Clean, dedicated to the exploration of this idea: the colour white and its associations with sanity, sanitation and sanctity.

'Clean' invitation, get real art New York 2001

For anyone who has spent time in hospitals as a patient, visitor or healthcare professional, it is clear that inspirational, beautiful, surprising works of art enhance not only mitigate the harsh man-made environment which is an inevitable outcome of technological advancement of medicine but also contribute to patients' mental well-being and eventually their recovery rates.

I recently met with Karen Janody who is one of many people building a body of evidence to support this idea. Karen worked on some of the projects as part of the strategy for the art in Guys Hospital’s wonderful new Oncology building. The oncology building at Guy's and St Thomas's employs various devises to make the building a kinder environment for the people who use it. Each section is colour coded and described as a 'village' rather than a 'unit'. This small change seems to tame an otherwise threatening-sounding name, such as 'chemotherapy'. For anyone interested in art and hospitals, the building is worthy of a tour, being publicly accessible in London Bridge, it is possible to simply walk in and experience some of the innovations of art and installation at work there.

Wayfinding using colour coding and sections described as 'villages'

There is a wonderful example of introducing the domestic into a public space with a ‘listening’ Living Room where visitors can transport themselves to a lake in Canada, or a farm in Normandy by sitting down and putting on a headset. There’s also a piece called ‘Hanging Gardens’ by Maria Neudecker in the elevators, where the window looking out onto the London skyline is mirrored with a plasma screen showing footage of rainforest canopies. As the lift ascends, so does our journey into the trees. ‘Wayfinding’ is provided by watercolour artist Karel Martens in the form of colourful patterns that change with each floor.

Patterned walls by Karel Martens and lights by Angella Bulloch

Karen is now employed at RB&HArts at The Royal Brompton Hospital who recently acquired some of the Instant Garden Series for RBHH Specialist Care, Wimpole St Diagnostic centre. The Royal Brompton Hospital hold a large collection and as part of my Holding Time work, I will be creating commissioned portrait of one of the mothers from their Rose Ward. On a recent visit I saw for myself a mother, having given birth days earlier, sitting expressing milk for her baby who was undergoing surgery at that moment. The pathos of her tired but determined face will stay with me always and there could be no better picture of mother-love. I look forward to my work contributing to the well being of her and many other visitors and patients to hospitals and clinics throughout the country and hope that you'll agree it's the way forward for a progressive, hopeful and idealistic society: to create and sustain wellness using ancient and modern methods.

Karen Janody with Floriculture 2 at the RB&H Wimpole Street Clinic, London

1. Wardwell, Allen Tangible Visions: Chapt. 3 'Visions and Spirit Quests'
2. An idea which, in itself is thought to originate from the idea of the Shaman: see

Flaherty, Gloria. 'Shamanism and the Eighteenth Century' Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.p 14



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© Lisa Creagh 2019