The Patient: the artist as medical subject

A "painfully beautiful and unlovely" exhibition exploring the human experience of illness, disease and ultimately death is opening at UNSW Galleries.


ORLAN 7th Surgery-Performance Titled Omniprésence, 1993, video, 82’51, Courtesy of the artist

The Patient is a compelling and confronting exhibition exploring the human experience of illness, disease and ultimately death opening at UNSW Galleries on 3 June.

Curated by UNSW Art & Design PhD candidate and Performance Space Curator at Large Rebecca Dean, the exhibition examines the representation of medical patients in contemporary art and the artists themselves as medical subjects through a wide range of media including video, installation, performance and virtual reality works by 18 leading artists from six countries.

Dean describes the exhibition as “fearless, funny, painfully beautiful and unlovely”, saying the exhibition aims to examine the ways artists engage with powerful human experiences in the fields of health, biological science and medicine.

“People across all times, places, cultures and religions have grappled with expressing the transient and fragile nature of our fleshly, embodied human experience.


Brenton Heath-Kerr, Untitled, 1994, Photograph by John Webber

“The artists in this exhibition deepen our own enquiries into the actual stuff of illness and disease, death and life – how they manifest viscerally and psychologically as well as socially and politically,” she said.

Among other works, Sydney-based video and performance artist John A Douglas will exhibit works traversing his experience as a renal patient and organ transplant recipient.


John A Douglas, Circles of Fire, 2015, HD video, production still, Copyright the artist. Courtesy of Chalkhorse Gallery, Sydney

Guy Ben-Ary will exhibit his video work documenting the creation of the cybernetic synthesiser, cellF, controlled by stem cells harvested from Ben-Ary’s body. The Sydney premiere of the instrument played by live musicians will be part of The Patient’s public program 10 -12 June.

Australian artist Helen Pynor will exhibit her new work The End is a Distant Memory, which examines testing the ‘liveness’ of animal flesh presented for consumption on supermarket shelves. Concurrently, the artist is conducting research with surgeons and former patients around experiences of lucidity and awareness during periods of actual, clinical death.

The raw and confessional photography of acclaimed UK artist Jo Spence (1934–1992) will also be exhibited, documenting the artist’s breast cancer treatment and her attempt to navigate the medical establishment’s authority over alternative therapies.

Participating artists: Ingrid Bachmann (Canada), John A Douglas (Australia), Brenton Heath-Kerr (Aus), Carol Jerrems (Aus), Eugenie Lee (Korea/Aus), David McDiarmid (Aus), Helen Pynor (Aus/UK), Jo Spence (UK), ORLAN (France), John Wynne (UK) & Tim Wainwright (Aus/UK), Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose (US), and Guy Ben-Ary (US/Aus) with Nathan Thompson, Andrew Fitch, Douglas Bakkum, Stuart Hodgetts, Mike Edel. Objects: From the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and UNSW’s Museum of Human Disease

Exhibition dates: 3 June – 6 August, 2016

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More information and public program

Media preview: 10am, Thursday, 2 June, UNSW Galleries, corner of Greens Rd and Oxford St, Paddington, Please RSVP to Fran Strachan, UNSW Media Office,, 9385 8732, 0429 416 070

About UNSW Galleries: Through its exhibition programs, UNSW Galleries fosters and advances research and discourse around the pressing issues of our times. Exhibition projects that draw on knowledge and research from a range of disciplines – such as art, medicine and science – have the capacity to impart and investigate new approaches to understanding the fluid and rapidly evolving 21st century society in which we live.


Jo Spence, Narratives of Dis-ease: Included, 1990, Collaboration with Tim Sheard, Colour photograph, 63.5 x 41 cm, Copyright the Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery, London