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Performative autopathographies: self-representations of physical illness in contemporary art

McGill University
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  • Communications And The Arts - Art History
  • Biology
  • Design
  • Linguistics
  • Medicine
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science
  • Social Sciences


Performative Autopathographies examines firsthand representations of physical illness produced by selected professional artists since 1980. Through pointed case study analyses, it shows how contemporary autopathographies function beyond therapeutic expression by articulating political, aesthetic, and metaphysical positions (e.g., autothanatography) in relation to lived experience. Notions of pathography, performativity, acting forms, confession, dialogism, and the ethics of response are presented in the Introduction. Chapter 1 reviews the literature relevant to the emergent field of “cultural illness studies,” situated at a disciplinary crossroads between medical humanities and visual / cultural studies. It outlines the research undertaken on pathography thus far, and details the relational, restorative, political and aesthetic stakes that characterize the practice. Chapter 2 examines the “performalist” photography of Hannah Wilke, conducted in response to her mother’s cancer and her own. Wilke’s pathographic works are read with the guidance of Aby Warburg’s Pathosformel, which helps to generate my notion of the “formula of pathos.” Chapter 3 considers Jo Spence’s construction of a living archive through her photographic treatment of illness. Contrasting her production to other circulating images of breast cancer, the chapter details how Spence built a critical visual culture of disease. The performative aspects of Spence’s “phototherapy” are discussed, while her final works are interpreted along the framework of autothanatography. Chapter 4 considers the semiotics of the body in pathographic choreography. The historical associations between disease and dance are retraced before considering works by Jan Bolwell and Bill T. Jones. Critic Arlene Croce’s notorious reaction to Jones’ Still/Here furthers the discussion on the ethics of response and responsibility in receiving pathographic works. Findings from these case studies of autopat

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