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Pathos Ocularis-the Beautiful and the Curious, is a fascinating exhibition at the College of Optometrists in London which merges art with ophthalmology.
Almond shapes, long eyelashes and interesting irises-in particular those with several colours and patterns: these are what make beautiful eyes, according to artist and glassmaker IluÃ¡ Hauck da Silva. “However,” she says, “ultimately it is the intensity and sincerity of gaze which makes a pair of eyes beautiful: eyes that sparkle with enthusiasm and love, and that overflow with tears when emotion takes over. The ability to candidly and transparently express feelings is definitely the most fascinating and beautiful quality eyes have.”
The crux of Miss Hauck da Silva’s practice is to visually investigate the human condition, and she specialises in works of anatomical and pathological symbolism (see Figure 1). It is eyes, specifically, that she has dedicated her latest work to, following her artist-in-residence at the College of Optometrists in London, UK in 2019.
At the College’s museum-the British Optical Association Museum-she has created a fascinating modern-day cabinet of eye-related curiosities, complete with drawings, photographs, digital images and glass objects, all of which can be viewed by the public.
In producing Pathos Ocularis-the Beautiful and the Curious, the title of the exhibition, Miss Hauck da Silva took inspiration from the Museum’s collections, as well as from medical, scientific and historical research she conducted in the College library (which contains literature on the eye and optical science dating back to the 15th century). She combined her research findings and artistic expertise with facets of her own experience with eye disorders.
Glass eyeballs feature largely in the exhibition. In Eyeconography (Figure 2), an antique silver dish designed to look like a chalice holds a dozen or so exquisitely made but not so healthy-looking eyeballs-each a glossy white with irises in vivid blues, oranges and greens-and some with a double pupil or iris, to represent the double vision that the artist has herself experienced.
Drawing on experience
Describing her experience with diplopia, Miss Hauck da Silva told Ophthalmology Times Europe: “I suffered from diplopia as a result of sixth nerve palsy, which occurred due to the fact that I had an infection in my petrous bone [which I had] for at least 6 weeks before my sixth nerve was affected. In a way, I am glad I had diplopia because it was the symptom that urged me to seek help at Moorfields Eye Hospital [London]. Double vision was rather disorienting and deeply concerning-I remember feeling very fragile and vulnerable.”
Once hospitalised at Guy’s Hospital, London and medicated, Miss Hauck da Silva’s diplopic symptoms quickly subsided, but it took at least 3 months for the movement in her right eye to return to normal. Ever since the infection, she has suffered from dry eyes and photophobia, which worsen if she has to work on a computer for long periods of time, use her mobile phone a lot or travel on public transport. She finds these symptoms both “uncomfortable and frustrating”.
Miss Hauck da Silva is also an art historian and considered Saint Lucy, the patron saint of the blind in Roman Catholicism, when producing the show. “When I first saw the Museum’s cabinet drawers full of glass eye models representing ocular pathologies in advanced stages, I immediately made a connection with Saint Lucy’s eyes on a plate, her principle iconography, which suddenly resonated very differently with me,” she described.
“I was compelled to think of people from bygone eras who would leave votive offerings or ex-voto on altars dedicated to Saint Lucy either in hope to be cured or in gratitude for having been cured. Such people could have been suffering from those advanced ocular pathologies represented in the glass models-glaucoma, cataract or an eye infection-when there was no medical treatment for such conditions. It must have been truly awful!”
She added: “This called into question the role of the cult of saints before the advent of modern medicine, and how our attitudes towards illness and cure have changed since then. This is why, in my Self-portrait as Saint Lucy (Figure 3), instead of eyes I have placed images of the medication that cured me from acute diplopia on the plate, conflating the religious and the scientific.”
According to Miss Hauck da Silva, the most validating moment of her art residency was when she first told Neil Handley, curator at the Museum for the past 22 years, that whilst doing research in the Museum’s library, she had come across a chapter in a book that had been written by the very doctor who had treated her when she suffered from diplopia/sixth nerve palsy. This is when Mr Handley said she should make her work about the illness she had, since sharing her personal experience would potentially make it easier and more interesting for viewers to relate and engage with the show.
Mr Handley, who has a background as an historian of science and medicine, first encountered the artist as a visitor to the Museum. “Her obvious interest in our collections, coupled with fortuitous timing-it had been 7 years since our last artist-in-residence-meant she was an obvious person to approach,” he said.
“Her work is also very visual, but not abstract, which suits the general flavour of our displays, which our founder John Sutcliffe instigated as far back as 1901 (we are the oldest optical museum in the world). Sutcliffe commented that he wanted there to be eyes looking at you from every corner of the professional headquarters (then at a different location, but we’ve continued the theme in our present building) so that no one who crossed the threshold could be in any doubt as to the subject matter of the optometry profession,” he added.
“It’s appropriate, therefore, that IluÃ¡’s exhibition is in the reception area, making it the first thing that visitors to the College see.”
Mr Handley explained that all the College’s exhibitions are a challenge, because they have to operate on a very small scale due to their location in what were formerly domestic premises, albeit a pair of very nice Georgian town houses. He said: “Our first-ever artist-in-residence, Derek Ogbourne, produced a ‘micro’ exhibition within a single pull-out drawer, whereas our second, Patrice Moor, produced an exhibition comprising just three works, placed strategically at intervals within the permanent display.”
He added: “I decided to offer IluÃ¡ one entire display case, but she was governed by its dimensions and the fact that all the works would have to be displayable in the horizontal position. IluÃ¡ obtained great insight from holding discussions with our Clinical Adviser at the College, Mr Daniel Hardiman-McCartney. It was a learning journey for her as much as for us, in that she learned a lot more about her own eye condition and how others have coped with eye disease or visual impairment over the centuries.”
For Mr Handley, the lived experience that manifests in the exhibition is a highlight. He says: “I like the assemblage of pieces collectively entitled Dry Eyes [see Figure 4]. The aim was to represent, in artistic form, just what experiencing an eye condition feels like. That’s quite a challenge, but IluÃ¡ has succeeded; just looking at the pieces is painful.”
“Their rough, gritty surface texture took multiple firings to perfect and it was quite a lengthy process to achieve the end result, in the same way that treatment for a medical condition can often take a long time and bring its own pain in the process.” For this piece, the artist chose to move away from anatomically correct eyes to a two-dimensional form inspired by ancient Egyptian imagery.
Although her story is told ultimately as a positive one of recovery, Miss Hauck da Silva pointed out: “I wanted to include the word pathos in the exhibition title, as in many languages it evokes suffering and pain, and thus prompts empathy/compassion in the viewer for the sufferer.”
The Museum hopes that visitors to this show will respond to both the beauty and the curious nature of the exhibits. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. Some of the imagery may subvert commonly accepted notions of beauty, and some of the most curious things, including pathological conditions, can convey a strange beauty of own.
It is often suggested that the works of art in an exhibition will ‘speak for themselves’. For this show, Mr Handley said he wanted to allow the voice of the artist to be heard much more explicitly-and the College has certainly succeeded in this, for these exhibits ‘see for themselves’.
The exhibition will be available to visit by appointment at The College of Optometrists, London, once the lockdown restrictions currently in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been lifted. For more information, visit www.college-optometrists.org.
MISS ILUÃ HAUCK DA SILVA
Miss Hauck da Silva is an artist whose practice focuses on visually investigating the human condition. She specialises in works of anatomical and pathological symbolism.
MR NEIL HANDLEY
Mr Handley is the current curator of the British Optical Association Museum and the first full-time museum professional to hold the post.