By Dr Vanessa Bartlett

Over the past 15 years my stomach and digestive organs have become less functional and more painful. As I have investigated my condition, I’ve noticed evidence of a widespread escalation in functional gastrointestinal disorders, autoimmune conditions, and allergies, while struggling to get support from my doctor.

According to Chamara Basnayake, a specialist in functional gastrointestinal disorders, the current medical system fails patients by focusing too narrowly on treating single organs rather than whole body systems. He describes patients being sent on a ‘do it yourself’ journey to join the dots between psychologists, gastroenterologists, dieticians and other medical experts (Trounson 2020). Gastroenterologist and neuroscientist Emeran Mayer has argued that we need to explore how the gut links to wider systems in our environment, food and other organs to understand changes taking place in the body on an evolutionary level (2021).  

Photos from a recent series of medical tests. The ghostly image on the right is my colon!

Stomach Ache is a new project that will explore how art and creative practice might enhance a radically interdisciplinary definition of the gastrointestinal system. I will be talking to patients in treatment for complex gastrointestinal complaints, and to artists who document their experience of chronic gut health issues in their practice. I am interested in artists and patients as active, creative agents in their illness.  Elaborate diets, obsessive research, food diaries and natural remedies are some of the strategies I have enacted to master symptoms where conventional medical treatment isn’t helping. As gastrointestinal complaints become more common, practices like naturopathy are thriving, while doctors relinquish the traditional role of community healer. Artist Helen Pynor documents some of the natural remedies that are seen as outmoded by mainstream medicine but are big business online (see featured image documenting castor oil as a cure for constipation).  

A goal of this project is to curate a new exhibition. As a method of enquiry, an exhibition creates space to explore what medicine cannot grasp: the felt experience of complex health issues, and the productive power of alternative ways of imagining and researching the gastrointestinal system. For many artists the alternative rituals and practices that they enact around their health have become integral to their art and serve as alternative spaces for ‘digesting’ the experience of chronic illness, as well as creating new knowledge about their condition. This way of thinking is informed by practice-based research, where artists are understood to generate ‘tacit and experiential knowledge’ in domains that are usually ‘exactly measured’ via scientific investigation (Barrett 2014, 3).  

I will be developing this project with three amazing collaborators. Lindsay Kelley is an artist and academic who explores artists’ engagement with eating and digestive processes. Rachel Marsden is a curator and researcher working on invisible disability, trauma and care. Chamara Basnayake is a gastroenterologist and advocate for interdisciplinarity in the treatment of functional gastrointestinal disorders. Part of our enquiry will be to explore how the disciplinary specialisms of collaborators can become genuinely entangled with each other, and with the artists and patients who will help us lead the project.

Experiencing symptoms that doctors can’t explain means it is often implied your illness is ‘all in your head’. Curiously, this acknowledges the productive power of the mind in bringing physical symptoms into being, affording increased significance to cultural imaginaries of the gastrointestinal system. While this project won’t fix my health, I hope it might make space for knowing the gut as part of an appropriately complex network of thinking and feeling that entangles patient experience, creativity, folk-healing and scientific knowledge.

Stomach Ache is supported by a seed fund from the University of Melbourne Creativity and Wellbeing Research Initiative. The project was conceived with support from Artist Mentor Ceri Hand.

Featured image: Helen Pynor, Constipation (detail), 2007, C-type print on Duratran, face-mounted on glass, 173 x 39 cm, Edition of 5 + 1AP. Image courtesy of the artist, GV Art gallery, London, and Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney. The embroidery depicted is a home remedy for constipation.

This post was originally published on Dr Bartlett's website on 26 July 2021.

About Dr Vanessa Bartlett: How do technologies shape wellbeing? How does art help us home in on the emotional and experiential implications of this question, in ways that escape the grasp of other disciplines? These questions drive Vanessa’s curatorial practice, in ways that influence not just what she curates, but how she researchers and develops her interdisciplinary projects. Her exhibitions at major international arts spaces, such as FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), UNSW Galleries and Furtherfield, have been seen by over 40,000 people and have featured in The Guardian, Creative Review and BBC Radio 4. She has edited two books for award-winning academic publisher Liverpool University Press (UK), the most recent of which was co-edited with neuroscientist Henrietta Bowden-Jones. Vanessa is currently McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.

January 2022