Autumn 2002

Public health, private art

Hygiene: the art of public health

London School of Hygiene
& Tropical Medicine
17 May–6 July 2002

This intercollegiate venture set out to exhibit work by British artists that explored the subject of hygiene and public health. Though their response to the subject was disappointing, the setting was thrilling. The best pieces embraced both subject and setting.

The show was ‘conceived to provide an opportunity for contrasting visions: to consider hygiene through the lens of visual artists in an institution dedicated to medical research and public health’. This was an admirable objective: to marry science and art in looking at this significant but often overlooked subject. However the responses were often too personal to communicate. The division between art (introspective, incomprehensible) and science (serious, analytical, worthwhile) had not been bridged. The art did not make the science more accessible, and on the whole did not place the subject within anything more than a quasi- political landscape.

Exhibits were placed throughout the School and the search for them turned into a treasure hunt. This heightened the architectural experience, particularly when secretly disappearing through double doors into the Boardroom where various papers had been left randomly after the last meeting. Here too was The X Mark of Dora Newman, a series of 25 mixed media pieces by Pam Skelton. Skelton had researched the life path of her immigrant Jewish grandmother, Dora Newman, too ill educated to sign more than a cross on her daughter’s birth certificate. Her findings were the basis for the works which were meant to act as a metaphor for the sinister notion of racial ‘purity’ and cleansing.

Upstairs, Julian Walker’s piece occupied the whole of one landing wall and was integrated perfectly within this space. A grid of small artefacts – broken pots, glass, stones – were all labelled with the names of infectious diseases: the English Sweat, Black Death, cholera, scarlet fever. The desirability of antiquity was cleverly juxtaposed with the fear of contagion.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was built in 1926-28. Along with the nearby Senate House, its architecture is the embodiment of the belief that education is a permanent pursuit. Lettering is chiselled into stone, wide corridors have not been subdivided, double doors still open on to single spaces. The building acted as a reminder that the notion of public good should remain unchallenged.

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