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Anne Teahan begins the task of reflection on the idea of a 'disability aesethetic' from her first visit to 'Revealing Culture' at the Smithsonian Institute / 10 July 2010

photo of two large abstract paintings against a white curtain

'Ears' mixed media on canvas by Katherine Sherwood. Photo by Anne Teahan

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The Smithsonian’s International gallery is a surprise. Above ground it looks like an elegant version of the kiosks on the National Mall. But most of the building exists underground. The visible part is merely an entrance area. To find ‘Revealing Culture’ I must take the lift 3 floors down into the earth and follow the signs through an eclectic mix of exhibitions ranging from contemporary prints to children’s paintings from Haitian earthquake survivors.

The question I have carried here from London, is ‘What if anything, connects works by artists with Disabilities?’ This can be simplified into a cruder one: ‘Is there such a thing as a Disability Aesthetic?’ If there is one I should see it here.

When I track down the red ‘Revealing Culture’ banner, I have the immediate shock of seeing my own work, beside the entrance. My six pieces, five of them fragile paper sculptures, have survived the unlikely journey from Tottenham studio beside Spurs football ground, to Washington DC. Materially they are paper and air. Formally they are hollow castings from shoes and vessels, made of torn printed drawings, mounted in perspex cubes.

Installed against a clear white ground they are evenly spaced and sensitively lit to reveal the shadow drawings which echo their 3 dimensional form. I am relieved. A chain of art-handlers have taken ‘Fragile’ seriously. And VSA Arts have provided the optimum space and light. 

And this relief frees me to focus on the other 54 artists and the exhibition as a whole. My Arts Council proposal promised a year’s worth of research, exploring the territory where Art and Disability meet and where American and British cultural approaches may diverge. It is easy to promise all sorts of things when typing to a deadline.

So where do I start? I do my deliberate first step, applied to all exhibitions, in all circumstances. I don’t read anything – not the catalogue, not the notices by the works, not the names... no leaden concepts, or illuminating explanations – just first impressions.

The exhibition is extensive. There are so many different visual and physical languages sharing a space: painting, knitted sculpture, video, photography, sculpture, assemblages, installations include: doctors’ waiting room; scientific laboratory; remembered schoolrooms; the documentation of performance... And the diversity is both a strength and a problem – 55 artists’ voices in the same space.

The design solution to this is striking. The entire space has been cloaked in pleated white fabric, with a slim slither of light at floor-level. Work that would be wall-hung in another gallery, is suspended against whiteness. The pleats are rounded rather than creased; no sharp edges or corners – the fabric wall curves.

The soft whiteness means that the sharpest visual focus is on the work itself, so the originality of design is aimed at supporting (and not drowning) the work.

I feel that each artist’s work has been cherished, or even treated with a kind of reverence. The fabric has an other-worldly feel; reminding me of white folds stretched across an altar, or solidified in religious statues and the floor-light gives the work a divine lift. Is there something ‘special’ about the work by virtue of the fact that the artists are disabled? Is there a religious sensibility at work? I am troubled by the feeling of an idealised space.

Perhaps this unease is influenced by tiredness; perhaps I am seeing a difference of culture: like many British artists, I have sometimes exhibited in less than ideal curatorial situations; here there is complete consideration and care. The lighting is subtly adjusted to accommodate the varying needs of video, lightbox, sculpture and raw painting at both floor level and above the work.

On VSA’s website (the American disability arts organisation) the exhibition is promoted as part of a Disability Arts Festival and the language is celebratory. Perhaps this is a Disability Proud and Positive kind of approach. In Britain, on DAO, language is perhaps more grounded in the sometimes frustrating and angry experience of disability itself. So I am both impressed and uncomfortable at the same time and realise that my contrary reactions will have to be unravelled later. 

I shift my focus from the setting to the art. And despite the enormous diversity - some strands and connections start to emerge. Themes of internal spaces, absence and transparency take many forms: work using x-ray photographs, empty gloves, empty paper shoes and dresses. There is a strong awareness of an internal life, and the penetration of external appearances and surfaces.

The Body is often referenced: through humour, irony, science, clothing … and not much religion. The sensation of Touch is often implied, with accessible mini- samples of work to invite contact. And this tactile focus is aimed at the visitor to the gallery as well as being implied by the material nature of much of the work.

And so I start to photograph each artist’s work, still resisting written explanations – and among the diversity, certain works surface and remain in the memory when I leave.

In particular, the image of an oil painting remains vivid despite the first hit of the afternoon heat. The artist represents horizontal layers of hens in batteries, at larger than life-size set against deep black space. It is ambitious in scale, and manages to be both illusionistic and painterly. She prompts feelings and thoughts of human and animal confinement and ordering. And her boxed-in hens offer a powerful start to a year of research and sharing artists’ work.

To view Sunaura Taylor’s ‘Chicken Truck (oil on canvas 80x120x2 ins) go to the artists' website

To view a slideshow of images of the entire Revealing Culture exhibition go to VSA’s website

Keywords: Smithsonian Institute