A chilling bedside manner

The residency of an artist at a teaching hospital, with access to a gruesome medical archive, has resulted in remarkable and disturbing work. By Marina Warner

When Zarina Bhimji first went to Charing Cross Hospital as artist- in-residence, she was attracted by the ceremony of flowers and the sick, and thought of fulfilling her commission from the Public Art Development Trust by exploring why people bring bunches to their friends and loved ones, or make wreaths, or lay bouquets on the bier.

Such a gesture is part of a common language that isn't necessarily religious or liturgical; it's more like the handshake or the kiss of greeting and farewell. It exists in a space between rituals and ordinary actions which belongs in neither category, but continues in a culture with the invisible inevitability of custom: when omitted it causes a tremor, though its absence doesn't break any rules. Nobody complains if you don't bring them flowers in hospital, and they express pleasure when you do. But failure to make the gesture can open a gap of disappointment; images then may register, perhaps even bridge, such dislocations.

Zarina Bhimji's image-making looks at these gaps and the way they can be tender, both in the sense of sore and in the sense of delicate, pleasurable, caressing. She has created photographs in which clumps of hair, pulled or snipped, bear mute witness to moments of separation, of uprooting, of supplication. In many cultures, including our own, hair provides a language of identity: from shaved heads to dreadlocks, from the headscarf of Islam to the nun's veil. Such gestures are not always accompanied by ritual - yet the cutting of hair, especially women's, often announces a new departure, a turning into a new identity.

Zarina Bhimji's work characteristically conveys unspoken intimacies, and shorn locks of hair recur, blue-black and gleaming, a favourite synecdoche for the implied subject. Photographs from the sequence I will always be here, for instance, return to the enigmatic scattering of clippings on the naked body of a young man, or on fine muslin which acts as a veil. These are images of partings, mementoes that are quieter than any official ceremony, more sensitive and discreet than any autobiographical account of family quarrel or rupture that a novelist, for example, might give.

But Bhimji's language of gestures includes violations much more horrific than the cutting of hair. The chemical techniques photography demands have given her control of other forces for intrusion, change and pain. Burning recurs in her work as a metaphor for that fluctuating character of experience, and serves to convey vividly - one might say, searingly - acts of unpredictable cruelty.

Small white kurtas of three-year-old children, hanging as innocently as laundry, are scorched, defiled by burns. Their destruction suggests, with the inwardness and delicacy that characterises Bhimji's touch throughout, her own childhood, when she was kept indoors during the civil war in Uganda.

Although the Charing Cross residency has not led yet to the work with flowers, it took Bhimji into a related, yet more disturbing, encounter with issues of mortality, authority and the violated individual, when she discovered the hospital's Pathology Museum. The severed foot, suspended in solution in a glass box, is one of the items offered as evidence of the body in the store of forensic evidence kept for research purposes.

The "museum" is an adjunct to a laboratory, and is still receiving specimens. The material it displays is shocking, unspeakable, made monstrous by preservation. The body parts float, drained of blood and drained of story, too: who were these people? Zarina Bhimji has photographed fragments: sometimes wounded, anonymous, unexplained, cut from the body and framed for inspection. In this archive, the clash between the privacy of persons and the investment of society in knowledge for the common good becomes visible. Or, rather, it shows the acquiescence to higher authority in matters of interpreting what knowledge is, and what the common good is that is served by that knowledge.

But Bhimji doesn't take the easy path of indignation. She admits the dismay she feels at the shelves of specimens is accompanied by a profound sense of their beauty - the foot looks carved in wood, the specimens swim in the kind of subaqueous twilit world that other aesthetic sensibilities, like Gerhard Richter and Peter Greenaway, have made into an analogue of the unconscious.

The pathology museum is not open to the public except by permission. It is a secret. In this, as well, it meets an important place in Zarina Bhimji's imagination; she is drawn to secret codes as sites of power.

The spectral fluid in which the fragments are suspended relates to photography's techniques, to the chemicals, the baths, even to the bloodlessness of the image, however real it makes its subjects appear. Zarina Bhimji has worked with filmy materials, with tissue paper, with crpy muslins, with the pale rubber used for surgical gloves and with thicker black rubber which she buys from a fetishists' outfitters, for whose clients it acts as a substitute for skin. The practices of portraiture and of medicine are related through a historical development of skin as a symbol of the self: a person's hide contains the idea of an almost magically direct and intimate image. Michelangelo, for example, famously included his self- portrait in anamorphosis on the flayed skin that Saint Bartholomew is holding in the Last Judgement. Saint Bartholomew was martyred when his skin was flayed and he is the patron saint of doctors; he's usually represented carrying a knife as well as his own skin. Skin-deep need not always mean superficial.

The recent obsessive concern of artists with imaging the human body derives partly, it seems to me, from the disappearance of belief in the soul as the seat of unique identity. Material evidence of individuality from the particular hallmark of DNA to the shape of a nose or a thumb has been invoked more and more in an effort to ward off mortality.

Christian Boltanski, an artist with whom Bhimji has a strong affinity, has collected multitudes of faces and framed them to memorialise them even in the anonymity his made-up titles emphasise - 364 Dead Swiss. Rachel Whiteread's casts of rooms, furnishings and even a whole house create solid forms out of space, turning absences into phantom presences that are elegies for the lost object they delineate. Their claim on permanence is doomed - as in the case of House, a monument to demolition itself demolished.

Despite the difference in their choice of subjects for commemoration, Whiteread and Boltanski share another quality with Bhimji: a preference for materials unsettling in their sensuous appeal. Boltanski's heaps of discarded clothes communicate unqualified nostalgia; Whiteread's use of latex and resin cuts across her minimal forms to intensify the sense of tactile and even olfactory materiality. Similarly, Bhimji's images and arrangements of objects protect against disappearance, reclaim the past as alive, refusing the deadness of representation by awakening the viewer's sensory responses.

n This is an edited version of the catalogue introduction to Zarina Bhimji's exhibition, organised by Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. It opens on 7 March at the South London Gallery

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