Brian Lobel: Fun with Cancer Patients
Review by Vanessa Bartlett
At the age of 20, Brian Lobel was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Unsurprisingly, his illness changed the course of his life, leading ultimately to his decision to study performance and become an artist. Now 31, Lobel has frequently returned to cancer as his artistic subject matter, documenting its impact on his personal and social life. His trilogy of one-man autobiographical performances, including ‘Ball’ and ‘Other Funny Stories About Cancer’ featured the artist in confessional mode relaying the awkward, embarrassing and sometimes traumatic impact of the illness on his body and mind.
More recently in ‘Fun with Cancer Patients’, Lobel has shifted focus away from his own experiences, working instead with a group of teenage cancer sufferers on a series of actions designed to help process or explore their diagnosis. These activities proposed by the young people and facilitated by Brian and his collaborators sit somewhere between therapy, artistic intervention and teenage high jinx. They include the ‘Guerrilla Pub Quiz’ hosted by Laura Rugg, in which members of the audience are asked to guess which of the hostess’s breasts is a fake, post cancer implant. In an action called Tommyknockers Tommyknockers a young cancer survivor sets fire to a voodoo like effigy she has decorated with words that have taken on a negative connotation since her treatment. Brought together in a multi-layered exhibition at MAC’s Arena Gallery, this is a document of a journey taken by a group of young people that focuses not on diagnostic language or physical symptoms but on the nuances of their subjective experiences: the smells, tastes and semantics of cancer.
Historically the arts have always been used to achieve social good, their visual and creative properties perhaps more suited to beguiling the emotions than the cool positivism of medicine or science. In recent years organisations such as the Wellcome Collection (the major funder of this project) have capitalised on the arts ability to excite empathetic responses and bring science to a wider public audience. Within the medical industry, where the malfunctioning body is the physician’s narrow focus, there is undoubtedly a systemic need for projects like this one that can help young people to articulate the mental traumas that come along with a physical illness.
Where the exhibition perhaps falls down is in its rendering of the project for the gallery audience. As is often the case with live work, photography and video can create a poor representation of the deep encounters that develop between participants over time. As I navigated between the TV monitors and vitrines installed by the artist, I found myself wishing that I could meet this group of articulate and savvy teenagers in person instead of viewing them through the narrow lens of a visual art exhibition. Participatory art (just like therapy) is often at its most powerful during the live encounter and it is the stories of the teenagers themselves that brings Fun With Cancer Patients to life.