The beauty of illness in the eye of glass artists

Zhang Jiawen
Entitled "Illuminated Space," his exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Glass that ended on October 13 uses glass as a medium to illustrate human fragility.
Zhang Jiawen

Most people shy away from illness, thinking it’s something undesirable or unbearable. But a little thought out of the box may shed light on the long overlooked upside of being ill.

Author and scientist Oliver Sacks says in “Awakenings”: “My diseases and deformities belong to this world. And they all have their own beauty.”

As fragile as glass, people are prone to sickness. Being sick is part of our nature, but we often reject it as something unwelcome, something that makes us shudder in despair. Our fear largely stems from our intellectual failure to accept illness as part of our nature, and our life indeed.

Why not give illness a second thought? That was what Richard Whiteley, a glass artist from Australia, did in Shanghai. Entitled “Illuminated Space,” his exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Glass that ended on October 13 uses glass as a medium to illustrate human fragility.

I visited the exhibition on October 6 and found that the artist had acquired inspirations from examining the X-rays of his deceased parents’ bodies.

In our daily life, we often choose to turn a blind eye to what happens inside our body; we can afford not to see it. But confronted with the glass work that brings our internal organs for everyone to see in broad light, we have no way to dodge from the bare fact of life. Indeed, we begin to understand, and even appreciate the beauty of human lives into which fragility is built.

Whiteley was one of the art designers who increasingly meditate on medical topics.

What they have in common is to approach human illness from a perspective designed to disperse our unfounded despair about what’s simply natural.

There are two other exhibitions in the same museum that are related to health and illness. One is “Bee’s” created by Portuguese artist Susana Sores, which shows a chic and bowl-like glass container in which bees can be trained to perform health checks by detecting a specific odor in human breath.

The other is “Glass Microbiology,” about an elliptical influenza virus.

Luke Jerram, a British artist, thought that swine flu viruses were usually colored to the naked eye under a microscope, but in fact they were colorless. So he used glass, a transparent material, to create a flu virus that looks like crystal-clear snowflakes.

In both exhibits, the artists drive home the point that being ill is only natural; it’s the way we are.

Secondary benefit

My visit to the exhibitions has prompted me to rethink what it means to be ill. Psychology has a term called secondary benefit, which refers to the special benefits that a patient receives because of his or her symptoms or illness.

“Should illness be seen as something purely negative? Well, illness is sometimes desirable. Genes that cause sickle cell anemia help to ward off more deadly malaria,” said Chen Yiyun, an artist interested in life science, at a symposium on the sidelines of the exhibition “Illuminated Space.”

If Chen was justifying illness’ positive side from a scientific angle, Winnie Harlow went even further to accommodate illness from a psychological perspective which is more praiseworthy.

Winnie Harlow is a Canadian fashion model suffering from a skin disease called vitiligo since she was young. Instead of covering up her skin-deep defects, she said: “Know it in your heart, and make your own mold for what beauty is.” Some people may ridicule her for soliciting public sympathy for her disease, but she deserves an applause for her courage to accept her illness as part of her nature.

Most people have yet to realize that being physically ill or imperfect is nothing to worry about; what is to be feared should be something wrong with our mind, our heart, our way of life.

According to a report by the World Health Organization released earlier this year, noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, are collectively responsible for over 70 percent of all deaths worldwide, or 41 million people.

That includes 15 million people dying prematurely, aged between 30 and 69. The WHO report pointed out that the rise of these diseases has been driven by five major risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and air pollution. Except pollution, all the factors are related to unhealthy lifestyles.

Meaningful life

Given the ever faster pace of life, driven by a desire for material comfort, many people cannot afford to pause a while to think about what it takes to lead a meaningful life.

They fall ill, recover, and fall ill again in a siloed way of life hardly connected to spiritual reflection. When illness strikes, they fear and swear, not knowing what’s to be avoided is not illness per se, but a source of illness: anxiety.

While a few enlightened souls, when fallen ill, can finally realize the harm of an unhealthy lifestyle, fewer of us may eventually come to terms with another fact of life: Life is transient.

How to live a transient life in full? Shi Tiesheng, a writer who struggled on the verge of death most of his life, left behind him a spiritual wealth in the form of his inspiring works. The book titled “Essays Composed during Illness” shares his understanding of illness and death. He wrote: “The experience of being ill is contentment step by step ... I finally realized that we are always lucky every moment, because any disaster may be followed by a worse one.”

Giving illness a second thought and trying to appreciate it as a reminder of our mortality, we might be empowered to live more fully and, ultimately, learn to care not so much about our own well-being as about that of others.

Illness forces us to rethink the nature as well as our way of life. Whether induced by a natural decline in health or an unnatural way of life, illness illustrates the illusion of mundane material pursuits at the expense of a truly well-lived life.

Susan Sontag, an American writer and art critic, interprets illness as a moral judgment that allows the sick to face a moral and spiritual burden in addition to a physical burden. Illness is painful, but thinking about life in illness is beneficial.

For too long, people caught in a materialistic way of thinking take it for granted that consumption and the ability to consume more define a fulfilled life. Once they fall ill — their ability to consume compromised — they begin to fear. But artists like Richard Whiteley and their recent exhibitions in Shanghai show that, like glass, he who consumes is, ultimately, consumed by desire and despair, rather than consummated in care and love.

The writer is a graduate student from the School of Journalism, Fudan University.

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