Tuesday, 15 March 2011



Cradle to Grave is the name of a 14 metre-long installation which runs down the middle of the Wellcome Trust Gallery at the British Museum. The gallery walls are lined with ancient gold artefacts and sculptures from all over the world on the theme of Living and Dying, but Cradle to Grave attracts the crowds.

 It lays out for our delectation a lifetime supply of prescribed drugs which illustrate the medical stories of one woman and one man. Some of the treatments are common to both: each starts at birth with an injection of vitamin K and immunizations, and both take antibiotics and painkillers at various times. Other treatments are more specific. The woman takes contraceptive pills, and hormone replacement therapy in middle age. The man has asthma and hay fever when young, but enjoys good health until his fifties. He finally stops smoking after a bad chest infection when he is seventy. He is treated for high blood pressure for the last ten years of his life and has a heart attack and dies of a stroke in his seventies. He takes as many pills in the last ten years of his life as in the first sixty-six.

The pills are captured by  ‘pocket knitting’, a technique devised by one of the artists, Susie Freeman,  who  uses fine transparent nylon yarn to  construct pockets which are woven into a flexible fabric.  She says 'Aged seven my Allen & Hanburys bead swap-tin often came with me to school. At playtime I especially longed for the glittering, this desire once getting the better of me when I swapped most of my collection for a single faceted iridescent gem. Since then the collecting of tiny objects and their subsequent ordering has become a lifetime obsession. The methodology of pocket knitting, which as an artist I have used for the past thirty years, enables me to ensnare, arrange and use this system of containment to extract new meaning from the process of juxtaposition.” Each length contains over 14,000 drugs, the estimated average prescribed to every person in Britain in their lifetime. Family photographs and health-related memorabilia are there too.

Pharmacopoeia is the work of Susie Freeman, a textile artist, David Critchley a video artist and Dr Liz Lee a G.P. But is it art? Or science? Or craft? Or a learning device?   Or all of that? 

In the past craft and art seemed to run along parallel lines with a high degree of mutual suspicion. Craft was lowlier than art – and women did more of it. Art and science do not have a long and distinguished history of collaboration either. So is it a learning device? If it is, this is not new in art. You could say that conceptual art cannot help but be just that, as new insights rearrange the furniture of the mind. Some artists, such as Joseph Beuys, do not mince their words about what they are doing.
This piece has been so successful that Pharmacopoeia aims to turn its gaze from Britain to Africa.   The charity Keep a Child Alive supports work with antiretroviral treatments for AIDS. Pharmacopoeia, by documenting the pharmacological history and the photographic history of a number of children, plans to take their sci-art collaboration into new territory. 
condom packets

selection of pills

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