My grandma is my role model. Aged 89 she regularly emails politicians with words of advice, takes tai-chi, plays Scrabble and majong, and claims that the key to her youth is the weekly tennis team game she hasn’t missed for years. I know I’m lucky to have such a spirited role model as a relative, not only for the good genes but because far too often the older generations are relegated to the back benches of society rather than given the respect they deserve.
This is the focus of Coming of Age, GV Art’s new exhibition in collaboration with the University of Newcastle. The show’s curators commissioned 10 artists, four of whom were invited to observe scientists at work in the university‘s Institute for Ageing and Health, to explore ageing from science, social and personal perspectives. The project forms part of the campaign Changing Age, which aims to combat negative perceptions of ageing and celebrate all the good things about the increasingly numbered elders in our midst.
Using art to challenge and change points of view, Coming of Age is defiantly positive. Defiance runs throughout the photographs of Melanie Manchot, whose nudes of her mother present an unconventional beauty and strength; the project of Susie Rea who portrays siblings over 90 with gentle energy and playfulness just through the twinkles in their eyes; and Jennie Pedley’s screen silhouette alphabet of ageing, which treats it as a life stage not a life decline. The theme echoes one of the final pieces in the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Brains: The Mind as Matter(soon closing so catch it while you can): audio and photography focused on three people with Alzheimer’s who had just signed to donate their brain for medical research. All three individuals exude that same sense of dignity and strength.
The defiance on show at GV Art isn’t just against us, the public, for our all-too common shallow perspectives, but also against the physical ageing process itself. This is the subject of a talk that GV Art will host next month. Titled The Long Run: Life is a Marathon, the event will discuss the biological fact that we begin to age even before we are born. It’s a truth that makes the West’s obsession with youthful looks seem like a blindingly desperate quixotic quest.
Across Coming of Age and Brains there’s also a paradox that jumps out of the collective work. Thanks to the brain we have the capacity to gather mental strength and agility as we get old. But with devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s, it can also be the most crippling source of the ageing process. So, the organ most responsible for being young at heart is also the one that can cause us to be old even when our body is still going strong. It’s in equal parts a terrifying and strangely hopeful message. Both exhibitions bring together art exposing the fragility of the physical stuff that can account for such strength.
Annie Cattrell’s work depicts this beautifully. Her piece Memory comprises two sculptures of onyx-like and silver-plated moulds of the amygdala and hippocampus, parts of the brain which form the limbic system– the mechanism responsible for emotion and memory. It is striking how delicate, small and precious these structures are.
Similarly Andrew Carnie’s projections of cells and a human body over sheer suspended sheets of fabric evoke something eerily mystical, almost untouchable and therefore uncontrollable. The ephemeral and ethereal also shine through Martin A Smith’s installation of words associated with age that are projected onto the floor. The words gradually fade, dissolving beneath your feet.
New life from old
Despite, or perhaps even because of, the delicate systems underlying our physical selves, there’s actually a depth of richness in growing old. As many societies recognise, the elderly should be embraced precisely because they are old and not young. Their wisdom and generally gentle ways, their experience of history and bearing of rare skills mean that they can actually add a new breath of life to the economy and our communities – as guardians of knowledge, role models, and active, invaluable, indispensable members of society.
Maybe it’s just me, but if the US Democrats had heeded my grandma’s advice during the 2004 presidential election, they would have thanked their luck-spangled stars for the wisdom of age.