Men in White Coats
This is a series of thirteen large white laboratory coats, each padlocked to one of four coat stands and rails. Each coat has text printed in blood red on the left hand side, at heart height. The text is in both English and German. In English, the different coats read as follow: SPECIMEN COLLECTOR * CLEVER * RATIONAL * EXPERT * SUPERIOR * EGGHEAD * GENIUS * JUDGE * HUNTER * JAILER * EXECUTIONER * OMNIPOTENT * GOD.
White coats were adopted by scientists in the 19th century. Doctors later began to wear them too, to underline the scientific nature of their work compared to other forms of healing and therapy.
Despite everything that scientists and artists do have in common as practitioners, within mainstream cultural imagery the white lab coat symbolises power over nature, while the artist’s smock symbolises an emotional response to nature. White coats denote such a high status on the wearer that it is difficult for anyone to have an equal relationship with them.
As with the white coat ceremonies which now take place at American medical schools before trainee doctors begin their studies, the white coat conveys on its wearer detachment, intellect, expertise and control.
To underline the fact that the traditional white coat’s value is almost purely symbolic, in the United Kingdom doctors are now banned from wearing them because the coats actually spread, rather than prevent, infection.
White coats have particular resonance for disabled people. We do not believe that men in white coats have power over life and death, but they can often have power over our lives, determining where and how we live them. If we fail to conform to society’s expectations, whether physically, intellectually or emotionally, men in white coats can come to take us away, experiment on us, or merely hide us from view.
Within mainstream cultural imagery, the white lab coat symbolises power over nature. But within the Disability Arts movement, the white coat reminds us of how little understanding we have of nature, and how very far we are from having the power to control it. In turn, we regard the coat simply as being tomorrow's dirty laundry.
And what does the white coat symbolise for scientists? During my artist’s residency at the National Institute of Medical Reseach that led to this exhibition, I discovered that the world’s best medical research scientists rarely wear their white coats at work at all, unless their laboratory is due for a health and safety inspection!
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© Ju Gosling aka ju90 2008
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