The Phantom Limb in Contemporary Art and Exhibition Practice

There are many possible ways of beginning my contribution but I think I will relate to you when Marq Smith and I last met. This was at a conference he co-organised at the ICA, London in 2000 on Prosthetics and Cultural Theory. I was the only person speaking about phantom limbs rather than the main topic which was prosthetics in cultural studies and art. At one of the breaks, two very formidable professors with a deep knowledge of George Bataille and cultural theory in general were, I thought, slightly dismissive of my paper. They picked up a reference I had made to the fact that people have historically reported a phantom limb phenomenon in lost sexual organs. They then took my personal interest in phantom limbs as obviously having its foundation in castration anxiety.

My first response was ‘Ah no, it is not only men who suffer from phantom limbs around the genitalia region. Women patients also report phantom sensations there.’ I have spent the odd moment over the last four years wondering whether I gave a devastating empirical riposte to the assumptions of cultural theory, or whether I had entirely missed their jibe and made a complete prick of myself.

Now I think if the audience at this conference cannot help me with my problem then I do not know who can.


I will end my talk by briefly presenting three artists’ work, who help explain my interest in the phantom limb phenomenon. Before then, I want to set up a set of questions that intrigue me as a curator and writer in contemporary art, in relation to our topic. Simply put, these questions are all around how culture deals with enigmas.
I have the following question uppermost in my mind throughout the conference presentations:

Have experts in the medical and neurological sciences reached any agreement or consensus on the causes of the Phantom Limb Phenomenon (PLP)?

Is PLP still a live issue in medical circles?

Just as I am not a cultural theorist, I am also not a neurologist or neuro-psychologist. Therefore I can only speak of my perceptions from the outside. It seems to me that the medical profession and academics within brain science are concerned firstly with offering comprehensive explanations of why humans report phantom limb sensations. This has been a classic problem that oscillates between the areas of neurology and psychology, and no doubt other subjects. Most experts from the medical and brain sciences tackle the problem in order to solve it, and / or alleviate the symptoms for those for whom the sensation is painful.

To help illustrate my point, I searched an obvious popular source: V S Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee’s book Phantoms in the Brain (1998), looking for assertions that the PLP had been solved. He does not actually have that much to say on absolute solutions:

‘the phantom… exists in more central parts of the brain, where the remapping has occurred… Tom’s brain literally hallucinates his arm, and perhaps this is the essence of a phantom limb… But remapping can’t be the whole story.’ (p33)

Where I find Ramachandran useful with regard to art and exhibitions is in his themes of plasticity and the adaptability of brain functions. I will come back to this, but resistance to fixed positions and the mutability of meaning is very familiar and important to the core intentions of many artists, and consequently many curators who are working with artists and artefacts.

Going back to my explorations within the medical literature, and as an aside, something I spotted as an outsider was that phantom limbs seemed to have a peculiar status under Pain Management strategies. The pain obviously occurs not as a warning of bodily injury – the standard function of bodily pain – but as an example, if you like, of pure pain in that no ‘ulterior motives’ or prophylactic mechanisms operate. In effect, phantom pain has no use. (This is somewhat like Oscar Wilde’s definition of art, as something deliberately useless and disengaged from social function – though I do not know how far that gets us.)

A second aside which interests me is that, whatever else phantoms are, they are certainly hallucinations specifically of the body who is experiencing them. There is no way for someone other than the sufferer to perceive phantom limbs in others. The sufferer is the only repository of evidence that even they cannot touch. Therefore all theories and accounts of the sensation arise from case studies. Could anyone imagine phantom limbs being anticipated and described in advance of someone reporting feeling them? Is it possible to say then that PLP exists outside theory, or at least that any theories that do arise from the sensation are all well and good, but irrelevant to the sensation itself?

To give this a speculative, poetic turn, I wondered recently if trees might be swamped by hundreds of phantom sensations every autumn when their leaves fell off.

Let me reposition the questions I started off with about how the medical and related professions deal with an unsolved enigma. If the profession did achieve a consensus about what causes the PLP and secondly if the sensation could be cured, what would be the impact on those working with the phenomenon in the conventional cultural spheres such as art and criticism? Would the disappearance of the PLP as a medical enigma affect its relevance, its importance, its attraction for artists, curators, and writers?

Now in my ‘New Formations’ article on the subject, which was a published version of the ICA paper, alongside most of the others, I wrote this:

‘Through the phantom limb phenomenon we can identify a kind of fault-line in the models we have built; an error in how we conceive and construct the world. As it is often the job of artists to tease over such faults-lines maybe it is natural or understandable that a number of quite unrelated artists have made work which can be positioned in relation to the phantom limb idea and the phantom limb reality.’

But is that good enough? The sciences are tackling many enigmas, fighting on many fronts, of which PLP is just one. What if the fault line fixes itself and becomes a smooth surface in the interface between neurology and psychology? Do cultural ideas then necessarily slide off?

I want to explore this a little by saying something about the nature of exhibitions as a genre, which are one of my main areas of interest.
In special cases, exhibitions might seek to solve enigmas. Examples might be to demonstrate a debated point about the relationship between different points in an artist’s oeuvre. But most curators, artists and I think theorists will say that exhibitions often perpetuate enigmas, feed off them, morph and multiply them. They are not done to achieve clarity but to perpetuate complexity. I could choose many examples, if what I am saying is generally true, but I like to think the huge exhibition curated by the French philosopher Lyotard called L’Immaterieux (The Immaterial) in 1985 at the Pompidou Centre, is a classic example of an exhibition perpetuating enigmas on a grand scale.

What I have said just now (and many others have said similar things) is on the face of it a justification of art as ambiguous, imprecise and poetic. As long as the PLP remains an enigma, we curators are happy.

However, I am more interested in another way of conceiving the orthodox exhibition so that it becomes a platform for new and different thinking about interesting issues.

I once nearly managed to persuade a reputable and well established contemporary exhibition gallery to let me curate an exhibition around the phantom limb, using the work of artists, but no objects would be borrowed at all. This would be kept a secret right up to the opening of the exhibition and throughout its ‘showing’. Everyone eventually got cold feet and the show has still never happened. It would have worked nicely though with the idea of the phantom-as-bodily-catastrophe converted into the spatial trauma of an empty gallery.

Cultural thinking, whether expressed through artefacts, writings, scientific experiments, visualisations could, in the scenario I would like to offer here, meet on the same platform, on the same level. An exhibition on phantom limbs (perhaps more conventional and physical than the one that nearly happened) would be a way of presenting research, it could be a backdrop for debate, analysis, exchange of information and experience.

If I was a cultural theorist I might have to state a position from the outset about how phantom limbs should properly be conceived, explained or used within culture. If I was a scientist, I might have to prove the efficacy of my research methods to justify funding that might lead to the resolution of the PLP and phantom pain. But as a curator I can offer a platform – a place where differences come into contact with each other.

I now want to concentrate here on two British artists – Alexa Wright and Claude Heath, and one French artist, Sophie Calle.

Speaking the phantom into the world

Alexa Wright is unusual in this context because she has actually produced a body of work specifically on the phantom limb phenomenon. This was in 1997 when the Wellcome Trust commissioned a collaboration between herself, a neurologist and a neuro-psychologist that investigated real experiences by amputees in the attempt to visualise the presence of phantom limbs using digital photography. Her intentions were clear: ‘as an artist I am interested in representing the subjective experience of people with conditions which alter the perception or manifestation of the self. I am especially interested in the morphological gap which exists between a person’s sentient perception of their own body, and that same body as seen by others…’ Her series of twenty-four c-type prints was called After Image and focused on eight individuals, one of which was identified as ‘GN’ – amputated for over 30 years this man has experienced his arm gradually telescoping in and reducing. If he is not wearing his prosthesis, he experiences a thumb on his stump. This patient’s phantom thumb also moves down to the end of his hand when he wears his false arm.

(One might characterise this as a caustic counterpart to the Pinocchio fable – the act of lying produced telescoping outward for the little character, whereas for Wright, contraction and telescoping is demonstrably a consequence of telling the truth.)

It would seem to me that Wright’s work represents an innovative extension of the tradition of medical illustration, particularly the genre where maladies and deformities are depicted in order to make pathology visible.

Wright is extending this tradition of medical illustration by way of digital photography into virtual and psychological territory. The internal projections of individuals can be summoned into convincing visibility through digitally manipulated imagery.

The effect of realism is important as it offers a source of empowerment to Wright’s subjects – not always an intention of artistic practice, even within the genre of portraiture: As she has written: ‘one of the aims of this work is to raise awareness of the amplified feelings of difference experienced by disabled people.’ Wright and her medical collaborators worked largely at the service of the sufferers, by making their very real (though entirely subjective) sensation as visibly clear to us as it is neurologically clear to them. Wright’s photographs create a territory, by way of art, in which those with impairments can share their distressing subjective selves with a public. As Wright comments: ‘The new challenge of representation in virtual reality seems to be that of representing the self to itself.’

In some of her series, Wright has explored the co-existence of the phantom with the prosthetic device. This introduces a complex yet suggestive double image of the insubstantial body and the non-human prosthetic device as tool.

The blind-folded phantom

Now to a very different approach: The English artist Claude Heath makes art through self-imposed blindness – simple blindfolding – that forces him to explore objects through touch in the first instance, followed by memory. Heath works with denial of sight in order to foreground memory and haptic senses. These bring private memories and sensations into the public realm through depiction and drawing.

His approach has some connections to traditional teaching exercises in drawing. It is also something of a development from American artist Robert Morris’s Blind Time drawings series, started in the 1970s, where large works were created through depositing graphite and oil marks of the artist’s hands working with his eyes closed. Heath’s technique is to feel an object with one hand he, exploring its surfaces carefully, whilst simultaneously trying to draw what he feels with a felt-tip pen held in the other hand. To ensure some coherency he uses a knob of Blu-tac stuck to the picture surface as a base from which he starts. These felt-tip works then are adapted and redrawn, sometimes on a mural scale. The series and subsequent exhibition, Drawing from Sculpture, was the outcome of a residency at Leeds City Art Gallery. Heath talked about the project in the following way: ‘There is often a disjunction between the images being shaped on the paper, they way I visualise them and the physical reality of the object itself. This disparity is healthy because it does not confine me to what I imagine, expect or desire to see.’ The whole process never at any time involves the artist looking at the objects (which, in point of fact, were works by Caro, Epstein, Wright and Dalwood held in Leeds City Sculpture Collection). Heath notes that: ‘Whilst it might appear that I am constructing a private language of hidden sensations, these drawings try to find ways to contradict this privacy and to make these sensations accessible.’ This provides a link to Alexa Wright’s work – the explicit move from privacy to the public. It also becomes clearer how Heath’s use of memory, fantasy and trauma (albeit of a temporary, self-inflicted kind) suggests the metaphor of the phantom limb, without ever actually explicitly making reference.

The catastrophied museum

Sophie Calle’s Last Seen of 1991 is a series of photographs perfectly illuminated by the metaphor of the phantom limb, whilst making no actual reference at all to it. The series was inspired by a real-life art robbery, in March 1990, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Works by Degas, Rembrandt, Manet and Vermeer were stolen. Calle created a series of diptychs – one ectachrome photograph depicted the gap on the wall, and the other displayed texts from conservators, guards and other staff as they tried to recall the missing works to the artist. The works had titles such as Rembrandt. A Lady and Gentleman in Black, Vermeer, The Concert and Manet, Chez Tortoni.

As performance theorist Peggy Phelan has observed about this series, referring in particular to the textual description: ‘The descriptions remind us how loss acquires meaning and generates recovery – not only of and for the object, but for the one who remembers.’

Calle’s work fitted my sequence of requirements in relation to the phantom limb, in that the building had a long habitual familiarity to visitors and staff; its new state was the consequence of a traumatic event, which was then followed by fantasy and distorted memory. The will governing the layout of the Gardner Museum also stated that the paintings could not be moved, so the robbery produced real holes in the display. Therefore, this was a traumatised body with very limited opportunity for plasticity and adjustment.

To end, one might say that a phantom limb is a part of the self, poorly or incompletely forgot; an obliteration not yet registered in the corporeal world. Once the physical form has changed, the memory of a prior self becomes indistinct over time as the body reconciles itself to its new body shape. The body is suspended between a long-acquired memory and a newly acquired need to forget. The dysfunctional conversation that the body is having with its absent limb gives rise to fanciful forms, distortions, enigmatic sensations and eventually, the patient hopes, silence.

The move from incoherence to silence presents us with a fantastically generative metaphor in Western contemporary art. In any case, the lack of a precise medical explanation allows a translation to take place into culture, through the medium of exhibitions, through which cultural practices can be explored. Most intriguing for me is the fact that the translation of the phantom into culture is also a way of reflecting on artistic practice itself.

1. Douglas B Price and Neil J Twombly, The Phantom Limb Phenomenon: A Medical, Folkloric, and Historical Study. Texts and Translations of 10th to 20th Century Accounts of the Miraculous Restoration of Lost Body Parts, Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 1978
2. La maniere de traicter les playes faictes tãt par hacquebutes, que par fleches…, Paris: Par la refue Iean de Brie, 1551
3. J Siegfried and M Zimmerman (eds), Phantom and Stump Pain, Berlin / Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1981
4. V S Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind, London: Fourth Estate, 1998
5. Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand On, London: Picador, 1991 (1984)
6. Ronald Melzack, ‘Phantom Limbs and the Concept of a Neuromatrix’, TINS, vol.13, no.3, UK, 1990
7. Alexa Wright, Partial Bodies: re-establishing boundaries, medical and virtual, unpaginated typescript for chapter in Desire by Design: Body Territories and New Technologies, The Cutting Edge Women’s Research Group (ed), London: University of Westminster, 1998
8. Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World, New York and London: Routledge, 1996