Body Politics

ALEXA WRIGHT wants to disturb attitudes, assumptions and prejudices in a show of new work at Portfolio Gallery.

Words: Susanna Beaumont

‘I absolutely don’t want to shock people but I do want to confront them.’ Alexa Wright is talking about her series of eight photographs, showing the face of able- bodied Wright on the bodies of people with disabilities. It is work that doesn’t tiptoe around issues of disability. Wright intends to grab people’s assumptions by the scruff of the neck.

The London-based artist has long been interested in the relationship between body, self and attitudes of others. Earlier work has included photographs of people who have had limbs amputated and, over the years, Wright’s work has become more politicised. On winning a photography award a few years back , Wright became sharply aware that disability was still viewed as unpalatable subject matter: ‘A film company from breakfast television were there but once they realised the subject matter of my work, they left. i thought if the media continues to have the attitude that people with disability are ugly or difficult there is still a huge problem.’

In 1998 Wright came to Edinburgh, as Fellow of Photography and Digital Media at Napier University and embarked on I, which debuts at Edinburgh’s Portfolio Gallery. Using digital manipulation, Wright has ‘grafted’ her head onto the bodies of disabled people. They include those with cerebral palsy,

72 THE LIST 7—21 Oct 1999

'As scientific advances continue, it is more important that we ask about where the ideals of body shape and form come from.’ Alexa Wright

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Still life: a photographic work from the series I by Alexa Wright

scoliosis and restricted growth. In researching the project, Wright spent considerable time writing to people to see if they wished to be involved: ‘I gradually learnt how to better articulate my ideas,’ says Wright. ‘People were suspicious, but once I had shown them [mocked-up] images they were happier to participate.’

Yet it is a sensitive territory. The film The Theory 0/ Flight received criticism for using the actress Helena Bonham Carter to play a woman with cerebral palsy. It was thought that someone with the disability should have played the part. Does Wright not think, that likewise, she should have taken ‘complete’ portraits of people with disabilities? ‘I felt it was important that the work is not about identity but about the disability itself. In using my face the identity is constant,’ says Wright, who had considered but vetoed including a ‘complete’ photograph of herself, believing it might be interpreted as saying ‘here is the real me, the OK one’.

Artists such as the American Joel-Peter Witkin, the late Helen Chadwick and John Stezaker who showed at Portfolio during this year’s Festival have all addressed questions of ‘body norm’ and disability. Wright believes it is an issue that is becoming increasingly pertinent, particularly with the rise of cosmetic surgery.

‘As scientific advances continue, it is more important that we ask about where the ideals of body shape and form come from,’ insists Wright. ‘I want to confront people with something I find beautiful which others might not find beautiful. I find all the people I work with very beautiful and I hope other people will do too.’

I is at Portfolio Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 16 Oct-Sat 13 Nov. Alexa Wright. Joyce Carle and Catherine Long hold a seminar, Whose Disability, at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Sat 30 Oct, 2pm.


Taking the pulse of the artworld

THE MAN WHO has been described as Aubrey Beardsley's belligerent brother is soon to launch another book. The Glasgow-based artist David Shrigley produces doodles and very endearing, if mad, doodles at that. In his latest book The Beast Is Near, Shrigley enters the weird and wonderful land of Marlboro Lights and Fact Files. The book is published by Redstone Press in November.

SHRIGLEY HAS ALSO found favour in other quarters. He was recently awarded the BMW Financial Services Group Photographic Commission. Along with five other artists Sarah Jones, Sophy Rickett known for her photos of 'Pissing Women’, Bridget Smith, Hannah Starkey and Tom Hunter Shrigley has been invited to address the theme 'making your dreams come true'. The resulting work will hang in the company‘s headquarters in Hampshire.

MORE AWARDS FROM The Paul Hamlyn Foundation. For the second year running it has awarded five artists £30,000 each, spread over the next three years. They are the gerbera-loving, Glasgow-born Anya Gallaccio, Zarina Bhimji, Juan Cruz, Rose English and the Glasgow-based artist Simon Starling. Some years back at Glasgow's Transmission, Starling recounted the story of a disused museum case which he turned into a traditional French fishing barque. He then went on to cook the fish he had caught in the barque. Starling is one of the most intriguing artists around - an investigator who follows his curiosity.

APPROPRIATELY, STARLING HAS also been selected to take part in the British Art Show. Due to kick off in Edinburgh next April, the touring show is seen as bringing some of the UK's finest artists to a wider public. Others selected in the 30- plus line-up include Scotland-based Jim Lambie, Richard Wright, Martin Boyce and the aforementioned Shrigley, along with the London's so-called ‘bad girl’ Sarah Lucas and horse-impersonator, Lucy Gunning.

Wonderland: Your Name Here (Snail) by David Shrigley