At the Gallery
Judith Bore reflects on some of the hard questions of life.
At my last appointment I asked my dentist as I settled into the chair if he had been to GOMA. (The Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, which opened in January 2007). Yes he had and he had been ’under whelmed’. By this time I was no longer able to participate in the conversation so I did not get to tell him that, on the contrary, I had been quite overwhelmed.
This was particularly true of one piece, ’Lotus Land’ by the Vietnamese artist DinH Q Le. This may have been due to the fact that only a week before seeing this artwork I had seen for the first time ever photographs of some adult Australian con-joined twins. I had noticed the reference to them on the front of a magazine whilst standing in the checkout queue. As I reached for the magazine I hesitated: did I really want to look?
’Lotus Land’ is a series of ceramic conjoined-twin figures each standing in a lotus flower and arranged in a circle around a central figure. The twins wear clothing bearing designer labels – only the names are those of big multinational chemical companies.
The interpretative panel points out the significance of the style of the figures whose poses are replete with references to Buddhist and Hindu iconography. In Vietnamese rural folklore these twins are seen as special spirits who afford protection, bring luck. (From a distance they looked like cherubs.) The lotus is a symbol of purity and enlightenment. it is a survivor plant that thrives in polluted water.
Unlike language, a visual artwork can say many things simultaneously. I saw this one on several visits as it was part of the five-month long Asia-Pacific Triennial and digesting its impact, teasing out the many strands of signification, has lasted much longer.
Reading the note that in country folklore these twins are seen as ’special’ reminded me of a book my parents were loaned called Angel Unawares around the time that friends of theirs gave birth to a Downs Syndrome baby girl. Using a text from St Paul, the American Christian authors were encouraging those who, like themselves, had a handicapped child to see that child as bringing a particular kind of blessing.
Of course the opposite response to abnormality – abort the damaged foetus, allow the struggling baby to die, put the child in an institution, keep the deformed adult behind closed doors – is everywhere too. And not necessarily always arising from the all-too-human and universal feelings of revulsion and fear towards something that is different or weak: just the realistic assessment that a mother or a family, even a community does not have the resources, material or spiritual to deal with the infant.
The Japanese Nobel Laureate, Kenzaburo Oe, devoted much of his writing career to writing about his handicapped child, beginning with a novel, A Personal Matter, in which the protagonist’s wife gives birth after a long hard labour to a brain-damaged baby son. We follow the days of agony as the new father takes the newborn from the maternity home to the pediatric unit and then removes and delivers it to a shady clinic. But even for this short trip he has to buy clothes for the child and attempt to soothe him when he becomes distressed. At the last minute he turns around and returns the child to the surgeons who will operate. Kenzuburo Oe, against prevailing Japanese social mores based on strands of Shinto and Buddhism, had himself given consent for his son to be operated on knowing that the child would suffer brain damage which would impair his intellect and learning abilities. With his wife he went on to spend much time and effort in raising Hikari who went on to become a musical ’savant’.
This, again, in the face of constant negative comment from the surrounding society.
’Hikari’ in Japanese means ’light’ and he did turn out to be an ’angel’, composing music that went into the best-seller charts in Japan, without it seems any investment in advertising or promotion.
So I ask myself what about that bit of folklore about the conjoined twins? Is it a mere reaction-formation superstition or an enabling spirituality for a society without scientific understanding? Does our scientific understanding with its advancing biotechnologies cope any more successfully with the phenomenon of birth defects?
Just after Kenzaburo’s son was born and before the decision to operate had been made, the writer accepted an assignment to report on a peace gathering in Hiroshima. It was whilst talking to a doctor who had cared for the victims of the bombing in the immediate aftermath and was continuing to work, and hearing about a younger doctor who had hanged himself because he was so overwhelmed by the enormity of the injury and suffering around him, that the writer made the decision to ’care’ for his son and authorize the operation, hazardous though it was.
The question I am touching on, for brevity sometimes called the ’problem of suffering’, is an enormous one. We might speculate that it wounds our consciousness and raises human awareness. It might even be seen as the determining factor in our humanity, the seed of emergent spirituality. This wound (blessure in French), is it really a blessing or a curse and what or whom decides this?
Two significant causes of suffering in our sophisticated Western societies are unwanted pregnancies and falling fertility levels such that some couples fail to conceive naturally. Individually and collectively we come to terms with these eventualities in a variety of ways. In the course of discussions on these topics the word ’right’ crops up quite often – a women’s right to choose whether she goes through with a pregnancy, the right to have children. Doctors and scientists have attempted to relieve this suffering by making abortion safer and pioneering out-of-the body fertilization. But it cannot relieve it absolutely. Abortion will always just be the lesser of two evils and babies do not always come to order. So does talk of ’rights’ help?
To some extent of course it does, although too much emphasis on rights can lead to a sense of victimhood. A woman who is pregnant against her will because of rape is a victim.
But what about parents who give birth to a child with birth defects? To take it to absurd lengths, we are all victims of our genes. But the figures in ’Lotus Land’ wore clothing with chemical company labels, reminding the viewer of both the ’designer babies’ that genetic engineering could give us and the ’non-standard’ babies resulting from chemical warfare.
The problem of feeling like a victim is the self-conscious loneliness it entails. This is the straightjacket of alienation that can only be got out of when real community is found, be it a friendship, a family, a group.
What is real community? Perhaps one where you can hear the ending of a story like that of the woman who asked the Buddha to bring her dead child back to life, and feel soothed? A community that has overcome its fear of difference and anger? A community that has a spirituality constrained by reason and reality (you are not special, you will not live forever)? A community that has embraced life?
Surely the title of the novel A Personal Matter is ironic.
1. The Music of Light by Lindsley Cameron Free Press New York 1998
2. A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe (translated John Nathan) Grove Press New York 1969