“What the Book Told”: illness, witnessing, and patient-doctor encounters in Martha Hall’s Artists’ Books

Bolaki, S. (2009) “What the Book Told”: illness, witnessing, and patient-doctor encounters in Martha Hall’s Artists’ Books. Gender Forum: An Internet Journal for Gender Studies, 26,

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The essay explores the specific insights artists’ books offer to contemporary feminist understandings of breast cancer, questions of representation and embodiment, discourses of ‘witnessing,’ and to doctor-patient relationships, using the work of American book artist Martha A. Hall as a case study. Hall’s artists’ books, created in response to her initial diagnosis of breast cancer in 1989 and the effects of later recurrences until her death in 2004, consist of poems, prose passages, ironic quotations by health practitioners, and images such as x-rays, bone scans, and pictures of prescription bottles. Artists’ books create a different kind of ‘reading experience’ compared to most ordinary books. While this is often described in terms of a powerful ‘aesthetic’ experience, in the essay I am more concerned with illustrating how artists’ books engage and complicate discourses of witnessing, which have recently become foregrounded in the fields of trauma, disability, and illness studies. I also discuss the potential the artist’s book holds as a medium for sharing experiences of critical illness and for effecting change in the ways medical professionals interact with their patients, thus commenting on both its personal and political value. The essay concludes with a series of reflections triggered by my own particular encounter with Hall’s work.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Bolaki, Dr Styliani
Authors: Bolaki, S.
Subjects:P Language and Literature > PR English literature
College/School:College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Journal Name:Gender Forum: An Internet Journal for Gender Studies

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