Hannah Clarkson (RCA) - 2022-23 Students

The Absurd Art of A(r)mour: Playful Strategies of Resistance, Costumes of Care and Decorum for the Autoimmune Body

Amidst the anxiety and autoimmunity left in Covid-19’s wake, nihilism is tempting. Hence the urgency of play, dressing-up and making(-believe) in the face of impending doom: as Nagg’s tailor declares in Beckett’s Endgame, ‘Look at the world—and look at my TROUSERS’. Instead of an endgame defined by certain conclusion, this PhD seeks to embrace absurdities of play-as-protection and costume-as-care apropos autoimmunity, through sculpture and its bodily activation as costume for performance. Drawing from decorative armour and costumes of care worn in wartime and illness, and personal experience of autoimmune disease, it will harness the absurdity of dressing up for/to resist death and difficult realities, using play and pretence as strategies for survival. Building on artistic and literary expressions of illness and absurdity—Beckett; Burrows and O’Sullivan; Cave; Palmer—sculptural costumes and playful scripts will perform autoimmunity’s care-in-excess as exuberance, cultivating creative modes of decorum through fictioning-as-resistance.

Existing studies on care, sickness and shelter claim personal stories’ value, yet their clinical, impersonal expression have often reduced narrative to data. Now, Covid-19’s assault on individual and collective shelter challenges and resonates anew with narratives of sickness. A collective need to protect one another by keeping apart—‘shielding’, ‘distancing’, ‘mask’—reinforces and undermines shelter’s and illness’ tendency towards isolation. ‘Home’ becomes refuge or prison, and autoimmunity—often dismissed as psychosomatic—is redescribed as a matter of time in ‘long-Covid’.

In this PhD—building on medical humanities practices—autoimmunity meets autopathography and absurdity in an embodied illness narrative, advocating both personal and social agency through exploration of the possibilities and parameters of play. Led by practice, this research aims to re-present ‘autoimmune’ understandings of shelter, playing with absurd sculptural costumes and performance to articulate material, relatable narratives of trauma and care.

Examining thematically, theoretically and theatrically linked writings, concepts and artworks through a dynamic matrix of key terms—absurdity, aliveness, armour, autoimmunity, carapaces, clothing, costume, dress, decorum, hope, laughter, (making-)believe, (para)fiction(ing), play—and led by a studio, writing and performance practice focussed on sculpture as costume, this PhD will explore the following questions:

When a body turns in on itself—care-in-excess—how could autoimmune exuberance be re-materialised and turned outwards by making—make-believe—and dressing-up in sculptural armour and costumes of care? If decorum is decoration towards fitness for purpose, how might the exuberance of making decorative costumes of care reframe misbehaviour as mischief/play? How could embellishment contribute to ‘fictioning’—embellishing a story—and autoimmunity—decoration as resistance, another mode of decorum? Instead of hiding behind myths of being ‘sick’ or ‘well’, how could ‘fictioning’ and ‘dressing up’ foster new, absurd modes of autopathography and empathetic exchange?

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