Presentation at Vesalius Continuum

Andrew Carnie speaks at Vesalius Continuum, Greece, Sept 4-8 2014

Vesalius Continuum: Conference Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of Andreas Vesalius: Zakynthos, Greece; September 4-8, 2014

“Vesalius Continuum,” a conference celebrating the 500th anniversary of “father of modern anatomy” Andreas Vesalius! Organized by Pascale Pollier and Dr. Ann Van de Velde, the “Vesalius Continuum” will take place on the Greek island of Zakynthos (where Vesalius dies in 1564) from September 4-8, and will host a wonderful mix of scientists and artists, medical historians, art historians, medical artists and contemporary artists.

“ A talk on new art work based on notions of intercorporeality gleaned from a study on the psychic well being of heart transplant patients”.

A Change of Heart

In a strange way the anatomical studies of Galen left us part baboon, part dog, part oxen, part man, a hybrid body; as we tend to have an understanding of ‘our selves’ from the information around us, particularly currently from science. Galen dissecting animals rather than the human cadaver made analogies and made us amalgams for a time; we acquired a two-part jaw, and a connecting passage between the ventricles of the heart.

Galen had proposed ‘holes’ between the ventricles as his theory that arteries from the left ventricle carried pure blood to the brain and lungs while the right ventricle supplied lower organs like the stomach and kidneys necessitated connections between the ventricles; so he ‘found them’. Galen’s authority was so ubiquitous that for 1400 years subsequent anatomists said that they too had found these links. Vesalius corrected these errors to many degrees when he worked in Padua, leading rigorous human dissections.

Through Vesalius’s disciplined anatomy we understand more of the body as a singular entity truer to its real form, and he created a new climate in which anatomists trusted only their own observations and explored the body a new, creating a better picture. In the modern hospital heart transplant patients when asked of their state of well being when they return for examination in the clinic show signs of being extremely well, appreciative of the effort and sacrifice that has made there continued life possible. However anomalies to this belief showed up from time to time, reports from home suggested a different truth, but one that was suppressed; the Cartesian type view that switching the heart was simply like swapping the pump in a car prevailed. On the hunch that there was more to the anomalies and trying to look a new at the issues researchers at the Toronto General Hospital have interviewed transplant patients in their own homes, post transplant, regarding their psychic wellbeing. The results are interesting and diverge from the customary orthodoxy.

The findings suggest that all is not so well. Transplant patients subsequent to the operation often develop unexpected complications or fail to keep a grip of their sense of identity. The recipient’s sense of self as a bounded and unique individual is disrupted through the transplant process; some suffer a sense of ‘in-betweeness’, a sense of ‘hybridity’. The long-term purpose of the study is to give better advice to patients so they can navigate psychologically the issues involved in such a traumatic procedure. Maybe also for all of us extrapolating from the study, questions of the status of the normative-self, the singular ‘I’ might be made; maybe a sense of self as more fluid and intercorporeal is more useful.

The talk will endeavour to examine the study and discuss how artists working alongside the PITH [Process of Incorporating the Heart] research team, used the data on the psycho-social wellbeing of the patients to develop new work for the exhibition Hybrid Bodies exhibited at the Digital Media Centre PHI, Montreal in early 2014.