making it better

It was two months after my father’s death that I first encountered Laura Youngson Coll’s work.

A late diagnosis of aggressive prostate cancer, at 56, had left him suddenly hospitalised, the cancer spreading to his spine, liver and lungs, and paralysing him from the waist down. He was dead within 5 months. Between daily hospital visits and the postponement of grief - essential to managing the practicalities of illness - I marvelled at the secret treachery of the human body. The idea that our own cells could revolt within us, multiplying until, too late, the inevitable lump or bleed revealed their presence, filled me with horrified fascination.

Youngson Coll’s works forced a reckoning with this particular subject, when I saw them at the Jerwood Makers’ Open in 2017. Pathogenesis, Angiogenesis and Regimen are assemblages of cellular and molecular structures, representing the cancerous cells of the lymphoma which killed her partner; as well as the numerous drugs administered in an attempt to cure him. Crucially, they are constructed from vellum - speaking to Youngson Coll’s training as a bookbinder - which has been intricately cut and rolled to create the feathery cellular forms. They have a sinister, clinical beauty; causing an uncomfortable prickling in my spine when I saw them on display. 

Youngson Coll’s motivation in creating these pieces, after her partner’s death, was largely cathartic. Using vellum, a naturally derived material, to create them can be read as an attempt to triumph over nature, the making process exercising control over the cells, allowing their multiplication only up to a certain point, and then containing them within a vitrine - rather than the body being controlled by them. They are not, precisely, comforting, nor are they supposed to be; but they are compelling.

The initial shock and grief of my father’s death wore down to a dull ache, as grief usually does. I was no longer reflexively reaching for the phone, to call him of an evening, and I could listen to Whiskey In The Jar - which we played at his funeral - without a lump in my throat. But a profound unease crept up on me, as the finality of his death made me watchful of my own mortality. There had been several premature cancer deaths in my extended family over the preceding few years, and it was hard not to feel that my card was marked. Gradually, twinges and blemishes which, a year before, I would have dismissed without much thought, became a cause for terror. Everything was a tumour. The freckle that sat peacefully on my foot for twenty years was a malignant melanoma. The ache from a shoulder strain: sarcoma. Mild menstrual irregularity: endometrial cancer. As I write this, I am trying to stave off the conviction that I - a non-smoker in her early thirties - have lung cancer, after coughing up a few small flecks of blood. I have been scanned, checked, assessed, and even tested for various genetic mutations, and am now on first name terms with everyone at my GP surgery, after a lifetime of near-perfect health. My doctor has indeed diagnosed me with one illness: health anxiety, or, to give it a less charitable name, hypochondria.

In this state of mind, which I haven’t yet been able to outgrow, I came across the work of Tamsin Van Essen. Van Essen’s ceramic vessels deal in abjection, the inherent horror of the contrast between the ideal and the real body. Her Medical Heirlooms series, in particular, explores the idea of the contained vessel as a metonym for the human body, holding and transmitting its own encoded hereditary conditions, expressed here in the various surface treatments and glazes. As with Youngson Coll’s work, the horror of bodily failure is translated into light, graceful, yet threatening, forms. Van Essen’s pieces, however, deal in the abstract objectivity of disease, rather than the biographical and specific.

Is this more, or less unsettling? Any form of making is in one sense biographical by default, the maker’s small but defiant gesture against their own impermanence. In theory, clay outlasts flesh. Materially, the vessels tread a line between permanence and ephemerality, seemingly robust, immutable and, above all, contained - but prompting the inevitable meditation on clay as both a formative material, and as the earth to which we all return in the end.