Beyond Pharmakon

Collecting fragments for an imaginary embodiment:

Pharmakon (from Greek φάρμακον): 1) remedy; 2) poison; 3) scapegoat

In the work series Beyond Pharmakon, I portray artists, curators, and researchers by using the medical images of their past or current condition of disease or disablement. The images are mostly x-rays and MRIs that I artistically modify and combine with texts as visual structures and drawings.

view text contributions of participants

With Beyond Pharmakon, I wish to indicate the disease as a potential for consciousness transformation towards life, memory, and empathy of the individual and in its connectivity as a social body. In their activities, artists, curators, and researchers open up possibilities of discourse as they deal with multileveled and alternative realities and therefore “treat and cure” social awareness.

The medical images taken in cases of an injury or illness are depicting not visible fragments of the bodies, in a state of un-whole in a double sense. The medical images present mainly two aspects: First, the image itself is ambiguous as the ethereal character of the radiography gives an idea of the body as a multitude of forms paradoxically as energetic or a light going beyond the density of its external aspect. The visual characteristics of the tissues evoke the idea of the social weave, creating a text-ure, a con-text, and text communication. And secondly, the idea of disease and cure depending on the character of the vision and perception of the medical image. The question hereby is, if we can understand illness and disablements differently, as, for example, as part of a transformation process or to develop unused capacities or reaching an unconsidered goal. The core issue is the understatement of treating the fragments as part of a unit with a certain goal.

Disease and the social body…

Diseases, disablements, and their cure reflect the social body. The concept of the social body concerns two interlaced aspects of the individual in relation to society and the individual as a society. The single being can be understood as a microcosmic manifestation of society influencing the collectivity and being itself affected by it.

…in society…

Based on a capitalistic valuation i.e. efficiency and functionality, in society disease is categorized as an exception and not as physical diversity and part of the human complexity. Healing the person means to reinstall her*his functioning. Healing or cure means on the other side an economical source. Therefore, the patient is in both cases an economical value. The treatments of patients are often alienating and the disabled or physically weak persons are poorly considered in the public sphere as for example in urban architecture, education, public services, etc.  Despite the knowledge of the complexity of the human being in her*his different states of physical and psychological conditions, diseases and disablements are usually kept invisible in society and their lethality normalized always counting the costs and securing the health of industries and big business.

.. and in art:

In art, the concept of health, disease, and cure has a completely different value.

Many famous artists, researchers, and thinkers were afflicted with heavy diseases and created important works of landmark importance despite their physical crisis. The personal crisis carries the artist to seek solutions on different levels and to approach the realization of visions. It might also be, that artistic processes sensitize the artist and therefore become more receptive to diseases. In many cases, the intimate experience with sickness leads the artist to a courageous position with sometimes outstanding results changing and evolving society culturally, socio-politically, and scientifically. It seems sometimes as if the disease is catalyzing extraordinary cultural productions. In a way, the disease vehicles the cultural and social developments contradicting the common world view on progression through the strongest. And maybe only in the cultural sphere, the disabled or afflicted producer has not to be explicitly included. Struggling in a physical crisis, the artists, writers, and thinkers produce works of transformational interests, and, moreover, it seems to be normal, “healthy”, if the artists or thinkers suffer.

Two imaginaries:

The two imaginaries of disease indicate the diverging ideas for the cure: one is the economically defined and the other is part of the incubatory awareness. The localized imaginary of disease isolates the origin and the cure is applied outwardly. Instead, in the other imaginary, the inside-outside opposition seems to be almost diminished, addressing problems and solutions to the body-soul sphere.

 Inside-outside: the pharmakon

The pharmakon is known to be produced as a remedy for a disease. But pharmakon in Greek means its opposite, poison, as well: An artificial applied substance that eliminates, erases an element. What else is erased? The name pharmakon originates its meaning in the myth of the nymph Pharmakeia who lived in the river Illissos close to Athens. One day the girl Oreithyia played with Pharmakeia. While playing, Boreas, the north wind, who’s love was not responded by the girl, carried Oreithyia away and drawn her in the water. The well of the river Illissos was believed to have healing qualities and was attributed to Pharmakeia.

Right from the beginning, we have this opposition of the word pharmakon leading to important consideration about discourse, dialectical thinking, knowledge, and memory. And to writing: In the text Phaedrus by Plato, Socrates explains that the pharmakon as the written word, the text, was invented by the Egypt god Theuth as a tool, a prosthesis, for memorization but denied by Thebes’ king Thamus who understood this tool or technique as a threat for the living memory (the living memory is repeating the presence of the truth).

The third meaning of the word pharmakon is the scapegoat. In the community, a part of the cure for problems is to eliminate or expulse selected persons.  In psychology, this action or attitude is called ambiguity intolerance. A person or a system can’t deal with complexities and condemn specific elements – mostly people and mostly if they are part of a minority – as if the problem were not lying in the system itself. Anyways, it exists a strong belief in an inside-outside dichotomy which creates more problems (in Greek: walls) than solutions.

Briefly said, the pharmakon is a simulacrum as it is artificial without identity. And instead of searching for the origin of a problem, the pharmakon is applied as a solution for the problem erasing at the same time memory of our essentiality. Of course, this definition is applicable to the written word or text as it leaves a trace of knowledge but doesn’t disclose the possibility of discourse, ambiguity, dialectic, and therefore search for truth.

Beyond Pharmakon:

To change in a healthy way ourselves and our social body we have everything we need, it’s a matter of time and focus. Socrates would define artists and researchers as “the good Doctor” who takes care of the whole. The source of this whole is the soul and it is here where sophrosyne is rooted. Sophrosyne is hard to define with one word, but we could say that it is a state of mind balanced by ethics and insight (Juvenal called it “mens sana in corpore sano” and we find it in Kant’s philosophy as “imperatives”).

In art, all the techniques, the pharmaka, are used to produce a new alternative imaginary reconnecting to visions that are inherent in humankind.

Our attention is fragmented, our vision is fragmented as it is our idea of connectivity. And sometimes we feel fragmented ourselves, shattered by life or socio-political conditions. In Beyond Pharmakon I wish to collect the images of the fragments to open up to dimensions of an imaginary body going beyond the physical appearance. At least, is there an idea of “body”, that is beneath all the bodies in the world. Soul and spirit are shining through these bodies on our journeys.

More topics (to be continued):

#artist as shaman #artists vs. OxyContin #art as socio-political cure #text, texture, tissues

Texts for the images till now:

Jacques Derrida, Plato’s Pharmacy in Dissemination trans. Barbara Johnson (London: The Athlone Press, 1981)

Antonin Artaud, The Theater and the Plague in The Theater and Its Double Trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Groove Press, 1958)

Paul Celan, Atemwende in Gedichte II (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975)