Art gives shape to phantom limbs

Clare Garner on how an artist is tackling one of medicine's most puzzling phenomena
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ON the left is a woman who can open and close her hand, which helps to ease the pain. When the pain increases, the hand seems to get larger. The man pictured above can control the movements of the hand until suddenly he realises it isn't there.

Which is the true body: that which is outwardly visible or that which is experienced? This is the question posed by the artist Alexa Wright in her portraits of amputees.

Ms Wright has been fascinated by the relationship between "this thing we call self" and the material body. "After Image", a collection of digitally manipulated photographs which visualise the subjective experience of amputee's phantom limbs, is the culmination of her work.

"My recent work with amputees uses the genre of portraiture to expand upon my previous investigations of the relationship between body and soul," she said. "For the first time in my work 'the body' is that of a specific individual, whose subjective reality is represented within the context of their daily lives. The authenticity of the photographic image is questioned in this work, as is the authenticity of body image."

In these photographs, Ms Wright addresses the vexing fact that while the people in the images regard the phantom as part of themselves - because they can feel it - everyone else believes that the person's being stops at their stump.

Phantom limbs - the experience of persisting sensory perceptions after limb amputation - remains one of the best known yet most puzzling medical phenomena and is experienced by 70 to 100 per cent of amputees.

The man photographed with his phantom hand on the table was injured in a car accident in which his arm was crushed. X-rays showed his arm was severely damaged, but the hand was left in tact. His hand is still painful, mostly in the third finger. It also itches much of the time and wants to scratch it.

He said: "I can't imagine being without the phantom because it is there all the time and it is very like eating or breathing: I can put up with it quite adequately and would probably miss it if it went away. I might wish it wasn't so irritating, but I think I would rather keep it as it is than risk losing it."

The woman with her large phantom hand was also involved in a road accident in which she lost her hand. She describes her phantom: "When the pain increases it seems to be larger; it is definitely heavier than a normal limb. I can open and close my hand, and this helps to ease the pain ... I am not aware of the wrist at all, but I can move the fingers"

In the accident she was aware that her engagement ring cut into her finger and, she says the ring is still there.

"At first I used to get quite uptight that I must be crazy because I was imagining a hand; but it is so definite that nobody can convince me that it is just in my mind. I wasn't born like this and obviously I do miss my arm, yet sometimes the phantom pain makes me feel whole again."

n "After Image", sponsored by Wellcome Trust, will be at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, High Street, Oxford, from 20 April to 8 May.

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