Outside In artist Emma Louvelle shares one of the artworks she has created in response to the Vawdrey Archive Project and the inspiration behind it.
This first piece was a response to reading about one of our artists and a period of treatment where they experienced both insulin comas and ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy). Both the artist and the medical staff’s response to this treatment was that it had failed. The intended delivery of positive outcomes backfired tremendously both during the procedures and afterwards. The period prior, and the period after, these treatments is clearly visible in the work produced by this artist. There is a dramatic shift in style and content that can be tied into their timeline for receiving medical attention.
In England and Wales Insulin comas were used from the late 1930’s till the tail end of the 1950’s when they were discredited. In very basic terms it was the use of numerous injections of insulin to induce a temporary coma within the patient. Many now regard the use of I.C Therapy as ‘embarrassing stumble on the path to modern biological psychiatry‘ (Dorostoy: 2006: Harvard Medical School). The treatment was often combined with Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).
In a deep Insulin coma patients experienced hypotonia, the medical term for decreased muscle tone. A state of hypotonia leads to decreased control or no control of muscles, babies with hypotonia are often described as floppy. Alongside Hypotonia patients in deep Insulin coma’s experienced absent corneal and pupillatory reflexes. When researching this blog I found a very ominous article in The Lancet titled ‘Absence of the Corneal Reflex as a Sign of Death’. The absence of corneal and pupillatory reflexes can be very roughly summed up as your eyes no longer move. During ICT treatment patients could also become extremely restless, flushing and prone to major convulsions during and after treatment. In Britain and Wales there was about a 1% mortality rate alongside the possibility of permanent brain damage.
ECT is where an electrical current is sent through the brain to induce an epileptic seizure. No-one is quite sure why it works and it is still used today. However until the 1970’s it was given without an anesthetic and in much larger doses. Our artist experienced both these treatments together and, as already mentioned, was left with, and experienced during, numerous negative impacting outcomes.
About the artwork
Limbus is the Latin for Limbo, Artificialis is the Latin for Artifical, I have used the Latin terms to name this artwork because Latin is still the language of science and medicine.
Limbo in Catholic theology refers to an edge or boundary of Hell. If anything could bring you to feel you had reached the edge of Hell I am sure a procedure of Insulin coma’s alongside ECT would do it. Plus medically and physically a coma is a state that exists within, outside, above or below our commonly used binary definitions of concepts such as, life and death, awake and asleep, mobile and immobile and present and absent. But the Limbo/Limbus our artist found their-self in had been purposefully induced by others, people, drugs and machine; it had artificially been aimed for and achieved.
The artwork ‘Limbus Artificialis’ is my artistic interpretation of these experiences. I started with a papermache face that when hardened and dry I then submerged it for several days in a bucket containing glue and water. When I finally pulled it out of its submerged state (its coma) it had partially collapsed inwards. I then covered it with pistachio nut shells, I would ingest the nut and then stick its shell onto the collapsed face. An act as a representation of what others had done to our artist turning them into a shell of who they were whilst in a coma.
I then covered the unrecognisable face with a heavy pewter colored paint, cut a cord and plug off a broken lamp and wound it round the face that had become an object. The cord and plug had carried an electrical current to my lamp the paint giving it all a surgical instrument sheen. I then added a few drops of a purple metallic ink an essence of something untouchable/magical within us. The spirit within if you like, the flame that needs fanning.
Despite the traumatic procedures, or any trauma we are going through still exists within us even if we are made unaware of its presence by what we are or have gone through. Purple is the most powerful wavelength in the rainbow. I placed everything inside a wooden box painted black, covered the base and walls of one side of the box with nails to symbolise the immobilisation not sought by our artist but placed upon them by others. But the other with the tips of cotton buds and metallic wool soft substances disguised in this placement by being covered densely with charcoal.
Charcoal has been used across the artwork but is at its most visible and dense here. Charcoal has been used as a detoxifying treatment for thousands of years and its use as an art tool has been dated back to 30,000 years ago. Here its presence is symbolism of hope. A wish for the experiences our artist had gone through to be cleansed/transformed, for charcoal absorbs. It is created by the heating of wood removing water and other volatile substances, wood transformed. As an art material there is a wealth of freedom for creation. As an ingredient for high intensity fire the hope is we can reignite ourselves. Thread, wire and dental floss where then woven roughly across at various locations, bindings; weavings of different density. The face had been contained, immobilised, covered, wired, tied, spiked, digested by another, but there are drops of hope and dust for recovery; this was my interpretation of our artist’s experience of ECT and ICT.