Mike White writes: When I was arts officer for Gateshead Council in the 1990s I had the privilege of helping Antony Gormley realise his landmark sculpture commission The Angel of the North. My interest in managing public art coincided with my growing enthusiasm for arts development in community health, leading me to think about the function of art in the pathology of the environment and in narratives of healthcare. I recall that shortly before I came to join the Centre for Medical Humanities, Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth hospital, which had a good track record of commissioning artworks, readily agreed to the Council’s offer of a set of photos of The Angel of the North depicting its construction in a Hartlepool steelyard, along with a set of promotional posters of the sculpture that once adorned Metro station hoardings.
I never actually saw these images in situ at the hospital until recently when I attended the radiology department for a CT scan. The NHS’s own ‘angelic messenger’ had summoned me for the appointment days earlier in an automated reminder phone call in which a digitised voice affecting a thick Irish brogue asked me “Are you Moikel Joeziv Woit?”. Actually no, no-one calls me that, but I complied and pressed the star button to confirm I would attend.
On arrival at the hospital, the near impossibility of finding a parking space meant that I trekked from the far reaches of a sprawling site following my signage destiny along interminable corridors until, rounding a corner, I found the uniformity of the echoing walls broken by a set of nicely mounted photos that would make the curious viewer slow their steps and breathe easy. With my own thoughts absorbed by the imminent scan, I found the unexpected encounter with images of angel-making relieved my anxiety. The sight of the wingless angel’s body on an 18-wheeler truck, like in Eliot’s words ‘a patient etherised upon a table’, and around it other images of men crawling over and through this gargantuan figure, grinding steel in a pandemonium of sparks, suggested an industrious creativity strangely akin to a medical intervention, but realised in hallucinatory proportions. A framed Metro poster showing a detail of the angel’s ribs and wing bore the cinematic strapline ‘Coming to Tyneside’. The angel and the hospital literally welded in my mind to affirm me in a place where bodies are fixed.
I took that image on with me into radiology and the awaiting CT scan. I was there, I realised, to surrender myself to all that medical technology could throw at me as I slid into the claustrophobic space beneath the scanner’s metal ribcage. I was mildly shocked to discover, however, the machine had an in-built voice of God commanding me in a transatlantic drawl to “Breathe in – hold that breath – breath out”. Why, I wondered, could this instruction not be done reassuringly by a radiology nurse? Although there was no hurt or insult in the procedure it felt, in a profound sense, isolating and a bit de-humanising – so at odds with the photos in the corridor that had suggested an elevation of the human and the ‘collective body’ that Gormley frequently invokes through his work.
For once, but I suspect it will not be for the last time, during that hospital visit I experienced arts in health not through my professional eyes but in an unfamiliar internalised space of dislocation. The incurable romantic in me had wanted to hold the angel as a patient-centred talisman, but medical technology speaks to me in a voice that is neither quite human nor divine. “Are you Moikel Joeziv Woit?” Well, I’m holding my breath.