Mania Efstathiou: Isolation and the loss of self in healthcare settings

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It should come as no surprise that there are medical professionals involved in the Sci-Art scene or even the Arts scene in general. Their experiences dealing with patients, i.e. human beings, in healthcare setting places them in the unique position of observing, portraying, and critiquing one of the most important and profound spaces where Science and Humanity intersects – the hospital and doctors’ clinics.

Mania Efstathiou draws on her work as a doctor to create works that not only confronts age old questions about Life and Death, but also the inadvertent isolation sick patients are subjected to from the moment they are admitted into a hospital. Her work also captures the phenomenon where healthcare workers administrators objectify patients as faceless carriers of disease and not as human beings.

She set aside some time to discuss her work with the Scientific Inquirer.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: What is your science background? What kind of work did you do in labs and hospitals?

MANIA EFSTATHIOU: I studied Medicine and specialized in Nuclear Medicine, which is a branch of medicine that uses radioactive material to diagnose and treat a variety of diseases.

During my residence at the “Theagenio” Anticancer Hospital of Thessaloniki I trained in in vitro and in vivo techniques and procedures. Other than the lab work involved in diagnosis and different types of scans (e.g. scintigraphy), I also received training in administering radioactive iodine to patients with thyroid cancer. After receiving a therapeutic dose of iodine, the patient had to be restrained in an isolated, lead-clad room for seven days until the levels of radioactivity in the human body would fall to normal levels. During these days the patient’s contact with the doctors and the nurses was minimized to the absolutely necessary ones. Seeing this isolation had a strong impact on my work in visual arts.

SI: How did you transition into making art?

ME: Even as a child, I remember sketching and drawing in school books, on paper, on my music scores. It was very easy for me and it was a way of expressing myself and communicating with other people. Although it was obvious that I could easily study at the school of Fine Arts, I followed my family’s advice and I became a medical doctor. For many years I worked as a physician in several hospitals and medical laboratories, until all of a sudden, at the age of 35, I was confronted with a serious illness that made me a patient in the same hospital that I was working as a doctor. That was the turning point of reevaluating. It made me realize my true calling. I wanted to be an artist and I needed to redefine myself. I did not want a new career but a new way of being. During that time, I realized that art was my way of responding and dealing with trauma, my illness, my fears, my own awareness of the fragility of the human existence.

The core of my artistic work are the same fundamental questions about Life and Death that also concerned me while I was practicing medicine.

SI: What is it that you are exploring in your Art? Why?

ME: The core of my artistic work are the same fundamental questions about Life and Death that also concerned me while I was practicing medicine. I use painting, collage, digital media, sculptures and installations as a way of visually approaching the relevant concepts of mortality, disability, loneliness, and alienation, as well as acceptance and hope. It allowed me to speak both as a doctor and as an artist. I could express views that science describes and art gives meaning to. It may even provide perspective into the big mysteries of life.

SI: The featureless head features prominently in your work. Your earlier work shows hints of features or partial views. Eventually, it evolved into phantasmic faces, such as in “De-faced.” Can you discuss its significance?

ME: The head and its structure always interested me and very early on in my artistic research I concerned myself with it. The first attempts were mere sketches, which quickly evolved to a series of “portraits” in watercolor, oil on canvas and finally, collage bits were added to the underlying painting. Later, while exploring my medium in engraving techniques, I came up with a variation of collography which allowed me to render my theme in a less realistic and strict manner.

Finally, my research led me to the De-faced series of portraits. There, the head acts as a symbol of the Patient Being stripped from its individual facial characteristics and made of fragments of its medical history. My intention was to underline the depersonalization which occurs when a patient enters a hospital. From that moment on, the main feature that characterizes the patient is medical history and not name, profession, character, or even personality.

The basic pre-entry process of the medical act, the history taking and its completion by keeping the records with the protocols of the clinical practices constitute the trigger point and the canvas on which the work is organized. The project is a completely depersonalized expression of the totally personal contact with the patient.

As personal and individualized as the relationship between doctor and patient is, the relationship of the Artist with the Suffering Human is depersonalized, catholic and universal. The often-distorted human form is rendered deprived of its individual characteristics and sheathed in fragments from its medical history, which — as features rendered in a different technique —differentiate and complete it. The project consists of a variable number of people at a time arranged in the space, creating a constellation of de-faced figures which pose — without answering explicitly — the fundamental question of survival or doom. It does it the same way the selection of fragments reserves latent the outcome of the case and the future of each figure. Solutions and straight answers are not offered by the artwork. On the contrary, the viewer is free to reach a conclusion that shapes the here and now for each one of them.

SI: Empty hospital beds run a close second. What do they signify? Do the metal-barred-headboards have any significance?

ME: I employ the hospital bed as a symbol willing to express and point out the diverse feelings of the patient while (s)he is lying on it. It is not the comfortable bed with a resting pillow which acts as a nest and a personal space of rest and relaxation. It is the inconvenient bed, without a pillow but with a heavy, metal- barred- headboard. Often, the focal point on it is the smaller rectangle of the table of the medical history which is hanging from it and acts as a border (prison) and expresses feelings of loneliness, isolation, pain, agony etc. In general, I place these beds, mostly empty, occasionally just the metal carcass of it, in schematized hospital environments whose limits are lost beyond the canvas while making a comment on the individuality and the solitude of this state.

SI: You transition to wax (a melting head) and then to clay heads. Did the transition also signify a shift in meaning or significance?

ME: My research on the head, as I have already noted, has gone on for a very long period of time, specifically since my studies in the School of Fine Arts. Beyond the two-dimensional depictions in different media, I started experimenting in three dimensions, creating small-scale clay heads in full plastic originally as individual, isolated artworks which were later inset in my installations “labscapes”. Wax has been a medium that I love and choose to use in several of my projects.It is a material reference to the changeability of human nature and the fragility of human existence.

SI: Can you discuss your recent interest in the notion of “landscapes,” in your case micro-landscapes in the lab and brain sections?

ME: The catalyst for my artistic work is my long experience doing medical work in laboratories and the realization that several dynamic micro-landscapes are created in there. The formation of these micro-landscapes results from the reaction of the space and its equipment with the people.

So, using medical laboratory equipment, test tube racks, graduated cylinders, and petri dishes as infrastructure and background for my micro-sculptures, I create small-size installations. I reconstruct or mainly create different laboratory landscapes, labscapes, highlighting each time different aspects and conceptual values of each one of them. The cold, impersonal laboratory space is enlivened by placing small wax or clay busts of its imaginary occupants. I then illuminate and photograph these installations creating a special scenographic sense, unique for each one, emphasizing its particular conceptual value.

The primary stimulus for the creation of the Brain-scapes set of artworks is the implicit aesthetic of nature’s entropy and harmony in brain sections of the atlas of G. Paxinos and C. Watson,“The Rat Brain in Stereotaxic Coordinates”, which is the most cited publication internationally in the field of neuroscience. Incorporating these brain sections in my artistic environment I created the versatile cerebral backdrop of Brain-scapes. Sections from the atlas combined with faces, shapes, colors, numbers, letters — some bold and others half-erased— as indeed are the inscriptions in the brain, render in a visual manner the complexity of cognitive function and the brain as the base of bodily functions, emotions, thoughts, dreams…

This set of works was created at the invitation of the Greek Society for Neuroscience for International Brain Awareness Week, which is organized worldwide by the Dana Alliance for the Brain Initiatives of Dana Foundation.

SI: What is your current show about? It’s a slight divergence from your other work.

ME: My latest solo show in New York is titled “Monitoring Solitude 2,0”. In the same way that as a doctor I was monitoring, the vital signs and condition of the patient, as an artist I use the visual vocabulary and tools to monitor human solitude, based on my personal history of solitude.

It is true that it is not so obviously and directly connected to medicine as my other projects. Nevertheless, it is dealing with the exact same ideas and concepts which pertain to my entire work. These being the concepts of perishability, mortality, loneliness, depersonalization, alienation, disability as well as acceptance and hope.

In this project these concepts are approached by using as compositional elements the human figure, its environment, and their interaction. Spaces are transitive, they actually constitute non-places, which are not significant enough to be regarded as places and where humans remain anonymous and lonely. Light and color create enigmatic environments in which I add a few necessary objects, always with an intention to achieve the simplest possible arrangement and the greatest possible impact.

SI: What prompted the change?

ME: It does not actually present a divergence from my earlier works. Possibly another aspect, or angle of viewing the same ideas and concepts that I have been researching and mirroring on for years.

SI: Finally, what is next for you?

ME: My goal and wish is to continue working and developing my visual work leading to a more mature and fuller expression of my inner questions in a way that will permit and improve my communication with the viewer. Nevertheless, I avoid making specific plans, specially for a matter so uncertain as the artistic creation.

For more information about Mania Efstathiou and her art visit https://www.maniaefstathiou.com/ or follow her on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/mania_ef

IMAGE SOURCE: Mania Efstathiou

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