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Scarlett Sherriff ponders the wonder of medicine and its artistic manifestations at this year’s Art and Medicine exhibition.

Beneath the surface the human body is complex and incomprehensible. The brain is filled with a vast network of neurons, sending signals and making connections instantaneously, driving our every thought, from the joyous to the dark. The heart pumps blood to every corner of our bodies, allowing us to survive. Medics seek to comprehend such deeply complex procedures and how they work together to make us live and breathe. They fix the damage underneath our coarse aged or soft youthful skin, breathing fresh life into us, and bearing the emotionally destabilising consequences when they can’t.

a person with a vocation is above all a person

The artwork is created by a combination of students and members of the Medical School.  The exhibition, titled ‘What lies beneath’, is unsurprisingly a deeply philosophical, thought-provoking and moving experience. My interest in going to this exhibition stemmed from a book I read two years ago, Do No Harm by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. ‘There are one hundred billion nerve cells in our brains. Does each one have a fragment of consciousness within it? How many nerve cells do we require to be conscious or to feel pain?’, he muses. Marsh made me first question the philosophical quandaries that come with practising medicine.

As a humanities student having read this extraordinary doctor’s autobiography, I have high expectations which were certainly met. The pieces are not technical, professional masterpieces, but they are expressive, contemplative and even spiritual. Entering the cornered off area of the SU to view the exhibition, the first piece I see is a sculpted bust of a doctor’s head in a green surgical cap. The detailing of the skin and eyes made the doctor look vulnerable, inciting you to consider what they are thinking beneath their functional scrubs.

Art in Medicine encourage medical professionals to pursue art and creativity

Another work also tackles the question of the humanity that lies beneath the doctor. A sketch of the same man with three different identities: a professional doctor, intent and serious; a smiling doctor with empathy for his patients; and a man who has his head in his hands in tears feeling exasperation and perhaps guilt at the end of a difficult day. This piece made clear that a person with a vocation is above all a person and that they have a breaking point. Maybe our politicians could do with seeing this artwork – it is certainly pertinent in an age where patients are being treated in corridors and young medics are increasingly considering moving to Australia.

A second politically motivated piece illustrates a variety of NHS professionals, including hospital porters, doctors, nurses, student medics, and managers. The thoughts of each express in writing that formed part of the artwork. The caption of the hospital porter describes his role, more than just carrying beds to and from; the doctor is concerned by a lack of resources and overcrowding in the ICU; and the manager’s includes the challenge of meeting the government’s targets. It is incredibly eye opening to find out what goes on behind the scenes at an NHS hospital to make it function even at its most stretched.

Other art focuses on what lies beneath the patient and the notion of unseen diseases. A particularly moving image is of a young man drawn with a look of deep despair and shadowed twice. The pieces description mentions that it was representation of depression- an illness so deep within the mind it is known as the hidden disease. The drawings are bleak but there is some hope in that doctors are able to diagnose and find these conditions, even though they are not physical.

The devastating impact of Alzheimer’s disease is portrayed by one artist –  the words ‘I have Alzheimer’s’ printed across the canvas. Towards the top the words are clear and colourful, and they slowly fade away and become less focused – a expression of the befuddlement and confusion that people with the disease can feel. Thoroughly fitting the exhibition’s theme ‘What lies beneath’, despite a healthy exterior, the patient often become more inwardly unwell as time passes.

It was an enlightening exhibit that demonstrated in such a fantastic way medics are not only mad scientists, but also mad artists! Next time you see Art in Medicine– go, it will be truly fascinating.

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