This is an architect's drawing, prepared by the National Galleries of Scotland, which purports to show why, due to lack of space, a temporary exhibit at the Dean Gallery - Lee Mingwei's The Letter Writing Project - cannot be ramped to make it accessible to people with impaired mobility. The obvious solution - moving the exhibit by a few feet - does not occur to them. This is despite the fact that the gallery has two entrances including one from a lift, windows down one side and the walls painted in different colours - there was no aesthetic imperative to place the exhibit directly in the centre as there might have been within a 'white cube' space.
Both the National Galleries of Scotland (as hosts of the exhibition) and the Edinburgh Festival (which organised the exhibition) are publicly funded, and are therefore legally bound to promote disability equality. As with all public spaces, they are also bound by anti-discrimination legislation to make 'reasonable adjustments' to accommodate disabled people. Yet despite this, there was no sign that any adjustments at all had been made to enable people with mobility impairments - and indeed people with visual impairments - to access the exhibition, which was entitled 'The Enlightenments'. This was also despite the fact that Mingwei's Letter Writing Project was intended to be a participatory installation.
This image perfectly illustrates the influence of the Scientific Model of Disability within the art world. Disabled and older people - and not forgetting mothers with infants - who require step-free access to view and participate in the art world are completely invisible. Neither artists nor curators think about this sizeable proportion of the population when commissioning, making and scheduling exhibitions. They see no need to cater for a group who they regard as being an abnormal minority who will soon disappear, and who in the meantime are regarded as having no legitimacy within the art world. For all the emphasis on the body within contemporary art, only the non-disabled body makes an appearance, and for all the premimum that the art world places on imagination, they seem incapable of imagining that artists and audience members can be anything other than 'able-bodied'.
At the time when I encountered Mingwei's Letter Writing Project, the Abnormal exhibition was on show as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I used the opportunity to challenge the main Festival's organisers, and ended up founding my own online Letter Writing Project which continues to log my progress in challenging the art world's disabilism. You can read the correspondence at www.letterwritingproject.com.
The use of both the National Galleries image within the Abnormal exhibition, and the title of Mingwei's project for my own, can be described as 'art-jacking'. This is currently the only way in which disabled artists can enter the mainstream unless, as with the proud disabled artist Yinke Shonibare, the art world refuses to recognise that you are disabled at all.
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© Ju Gosling aka ju90 2010
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