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Art and pain management


The word ‘shelter’ implies a safe haven, a physical structure or dugout that protects a person or group of persons from external dangers. In the Maltese context, the word could also bring to mind several war shelters scattered around the islands, cut out of the rock with primitive tools and bare hands to provide loved ones with a hiding-place where they could retreat in case of enemy air raids during the Second World War. A descent into the cold and damp depths of an air raid shelter easily connotes a sense of mystery and history mixed with the very mundane realities of everyday life during the war: family life, giving birth, illness, fear, and also hope, prayer, perseverance and reluctance to let go of the little one has. Unexpected deaths — inevitable consequences of conflict — must have swayed countless conversations and prayers in these depths, yet the walls and roofs of solid rock that confront us in a shelter actually smack of resilience and an attachment to life, not death. Within these walls, the possibility and thought of death are postponed.

This sense of the word ‘shelter’ alludes to a tough yet passive form of resistance, a kind of physical shield that fends off attacks without resorting to retaliation. Yet, to think of a shelter only as a protective shield would be as wrong as trying to understand the human anatomy by analysing only its outer skin. For we can only begin to assess its real value properly when we venture inside this skin in order to come to terms with the human resonances within. It is with such an attitude that we need to approach the project Deep Shelter initiated by artist Pamela Baldacchino. The title of her project does not refer to a shelter created and used at times of war but to an artistic and therapeutic sanctuary for persons suffering from various types of illnesses. If a war shelter is intended to protect us from an external threat, the shelters which Baldacchino has in mind are meant to help us come to terms with what is already within us: sickness, disease, a loss of the balance and rhythm of daily life.

This is not to say, of course, that art can replace medicine. However, art can provide us with spaces of introspection and even empathy, and Deep Shelter creates these physical and emotional spaces very directly within the exhibition setup. Members of the public who visit the exhibition are first confronted by purpose-built, internally lit, translucent structures that resemble hospital cubicles which, on closer inspection, are found to house Baldacchino’s videos rather than patients in bed. It is not a coincidence that Baldacchino had, in earlier times, been trained and actually worked as a nurse. This is a world she feels at home in. In the more regular circumstances of a hospital ward, the light, curtained structures in her exhibition would be intended to provide patients with the kind of privacy that makes them feel at home too — a feeling that sets in motion a sense of comfort that is essential to initiate the healing process. They also permit professionals like nurses and doctors to make medical interventions discreetly, without being observed by others in the same room. Visitors at Deep Shelter are offered the same level of privacy as they enter each cubicle, yet they find an empty space with a projected video rather than a hospital bed within. In the installation, art metaphorically replaces the sick person, overcoming illness by directing our attention to a more peaceful zone: a zone of convalescence.

In Deep Shelter, the interactive nature of the installation is not opposed to the more static, contemplative space of traditional media such as painting. Interaction and contemplation are not antithetical in this context; one does not need to choose between, on one hand, physically interacting with a work of art, and, on the other, reflecting about the effect it has on oneself. Instead, the two activities occur simultaneously, permitting viewers to become enveloped by the physicality of each enclosure and to contemplate the painterly landscapes materialising before their eyes in the slowly panning videos projected within each cubicle.

It is precisely this encounter of the physical and the mental that the therapeutic and thematic remit of Deep Shelter refer to: the very direct sensibility and awareness of one’s body during illness or pain confronted by the mental capacity to come to terms with and transcend the distressing effects of physical afflictions. Baldacchino brings to life the physical dimension in a number of photographs scattered around the exhibition. Collectively entitled The Contemplation of Presence, these photographs allude to pain and stress in the portrayed, solitary individuals in each image. On the other hand, the mental dimension is captured in a series of aesthetically filmed, serene landscapes and seascapes, details of flowers or corn fields bathed in light and iridescent lakes bristling with the reflections of multiple, natural greens. Here, in this silent, virginal domain, human beings are barely visible, and the world seems to be doing fine in our absence. Yet, this is the artist’s response to the patient’s predicaments. Cocooned in a curtained, private enclosure, visitors find themselves in a zone where a sense of oneness with the world’s cyclic nature is extended to them, like a therapeutic offering.

Dr. Raphael Vella