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Book review: Critical Care by Clive Parkinson

It seems that every high street bookseller has shelves straining under the weight of 21st century doctrines for self-improvement — on how to be happy, think positively and achieve a state of wellbeing, whatever that is.

This is a burgeoning industry which has crept into our consciousness over the last few years, epitomised by colouring books for adults. It’s all designed to take you from the distress of day-to-day life and become more “mindful”, but perhaps it’s reducing us to passive introverts. This creeping introspection is maybe more symptomatic of a society that has been encouraged to be less communal and more self-centred.

This is the story of an artist and a young patient, and an investigation of the possibilities of what artists with a social agenda can offer.

Into that same space, a movement loosely described as ‘arts and health’ has emerged which tells us that talking part in arts activities can have an impact not only on subjective feelings of wellbeing, but on measurable health outcomes. Prohibitively expensive tomes are published, largely for academic libraries, presenting evidence, frameworks and instructions for artists to engage in this practice, resulting in what feels like a reductionist’s field guide to painting by numbers for the well but worried.

It’s refreshing then, to read Critical Care (Cad Factory, 2017) by the Manchester academic Clive Parkinson, who very gently shows us that the arts don’t have to be a cure-all but can nevertheless have a profound effect on the way we understand their value in the context of health and wellbeing.

The book is an account of his time with Australian artist Vic McEwan who worked in a large children’s hospital in Liverpool in the UK.

What makes this small book so satisfying is that it has no pretensions to be anything more than a narrative account of one artist’s time spent working in a highly sensitive environment, with no brief to create a work of public art but rather the intention simply to respond to the people and the place with an emphasis on the sonic landscape.

McEwan (once principal figure behind Sydney experimental arts institution Cad Factory, who has been producing excellent work for some years now from a property near Narrandera in southern NSW) was awarded a fellowship from Arts NSW to work with Parkinson at the Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital, Alder Hey.

Some of the art McEwan produced is installed at the UNSW campus in Paddington as part of the Big Anxiety festival.

Critical Care is the compellingly readable assessment of McEwan’s interactions with patients and staff, and a paean to the value of such work which avoids cloying sentimentality and over-stating the place of an artist in a health context. But it is also a much bigger discussion of the best ways in which the arts can support health professionals and constitutes a challenge to many of the orthodoxies which prevail in the field.

Some of the art McEwan produced is currently installed at the UNSW campus in Paddington as part of the Big Anxiety festival.

In an age of industrial scale medicine and mass privatisation of health services, Parkinson’s book offers us something wholly human in the centre of well-intentioned (and sometimes traumatic) health interventions. It is the story of an artist and a young patient, and an investigation of the possibilities of what artists with a social agenda can offer. At times both stark and uplifting, it moves this emerging arts and health agenda away from panaceas for all life’s ills, to the arts as being an essential factor in our lives. Parkinson offers no solutions, but rather a deeper sense of community, and a richer narrative of the place of culture and the arts within a health context.

His “Harmonic Oscillator” installation offers a poignant opportunity to comprehend what art can mean to a patient, and also provides ample context for an audience to get inside the process which resulted in both this installation and an EP of recordings which McEwan has produced to complement the rest of the work (the project is, incidentally, ongoing – he will be working with several Australian hospitals in coming months).

Critical Care and “The Harmonic Oscillator EP” are available from selected bookshops and from Cad Factory.

The Harmonic Oscillator” installation is at UNSW Art and Design, Paddington Campus, until 11 November.

“The Longest Heartbeat” can be viewed on Vimeo. 

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