Exhibition: Abnormal – Towards a Scientific Model of Disability, Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London, until January 14 2012
Artist Ju Gosling – aka Ju90 – has brought her thought-provoking touring exhibition to central London, and has packed a lot of ideas in to the Hunterian’s tiny Qvist Gallery.
Gosling is disabled and gay; she chose Ju90 as an online pseudonym that allowed her to communicate in cyberspace without being judged. She always directs people to her website though, and is clearly proud of, and comfortable with, her identity and her politics.
The exhibition arose from Ju's exploration of "models" of disability. The first piece visitors encounter, I Want to Help the Handicapped, exemplifies through photos of dolls how she feels about four traditional models – medical, charity, administrative and social. All have their obvious, and in some cases disturbing, flaws.
This piece is a useful introduction to the central theme of the exhibition – that there is another, scientific model of disability, similar to the medical model but preying on humanity’s optimism that science will fix everything and eliminate disability, therefore rendering obsolete the current drive towards an inclusive society.
She believes this model is both unhelpful and unrealistic, pointing out that it is "normal" for us to become disabled as we age; at the exhibition’s heart is the point that we need to recognise how disabled people are often impaired by their environment, rather than their condition, and work towards eliminating barriers.
There are three pieces titled simply Abnormal 1, 2 and 3. They test visitors' prejudices.
We don't know why there's a girl wearing an animal mask, and we're not told. From a distance, one piece is just the word Abnormal, bright red and written in capital letters.
Close up, visitors will notice another word, Human, repeated over and over again in every red letter.
Similarly, Design for Life shows an ultrasound, with an alphabet of character traits surrounding it. We don’t know whether this baby has "impairments", and Gosling shows us that it doesn't matter.
Mixed media makes the exhibition interactive. Shai, an arcade-style game named after the Egyptian God of Destiny, allows visitors to grab paper fortunes coiled inside plastic medical tubes.
This plays on the scientific tendency to homogenise disabled people against the uniqueness of every person, disabled or not.
A CCTV monitor in the corner plays only an image of bars, and the room is filled with the noise of the bars being rattled.
Gosling says she is pleased that her work "rattles cages", but this piece also subtly notes the frustration and imprisonment that disabled people can feel; a drawing in the centre of one wall denounces one museum's refusal to allow a wheelchair ramp in a gallery, therefore denying wheelchair users access that "normal" people would take for granted.
Abnormal raises a lot of questions about disability's place in society, and it is sobering. Disabled or not, visitors should leave this room feeling that inclusion is a priority, both for the quality of life of people with disabilities now and for those of us who will live long enough to be disabled in the future.
Science will not "fix" everyone – certainly not in our lifetimes.
- Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm. Admission free.