Phelim Hoey on how his MS diagnosis became a driving force of his practice

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Swimming in symbolism, Hoey’s work speaks to the transience of human life, the passages of time, and the cruel nature of chance

In a spartan room of cold concrete, a series of human heads – rendered in grey porcelain – are set across the floor. Each one is orbited by a kind of pendulum, their weighted bobs swinging back and forth, whistling past the sculptures’ fragile surfaces. Soon enough they strike their chosen targets, some earlier than others. When they do, the effigies crumble; delicate pieces litter the ground, from a chin to a collapsed brow, or the now-dislocated contours of a human cheek.

This unsettling installation, preserved in the shape of a tense video work, was an early experiment by Dutch-Irish visual artist Phelim Hoey, and a constituent part of his ongoing project, La Machine. Swimming in symbolism, it speaks directly to the transience of human life, to dual frailties of mind and body, to the passages of time, and to the cruel nature of chance. In these ways, it’s an illuminating window into the questions that define much of Hoey’s practice – questions that emerge largely from the artist’s own personal circumstances. 

Just a few weeks into the first year of his photography course at Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands, Hoey began to experience problems with his vision. “I wasn’t worried at all,” he recalls, “at that time I felt pretty immortal”. Despite the assurances of a doctor – that it was likely an infection stemming from an earlier cold – further symptoms followed, affecting Hoey’s balance and coordination. Some six months later, on 14 March 2011, after a succession of escalating consultations with neurologists, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) – a disease of the brain and spinal cord that disrupts the nervous symptom’s ability to transmit signals. 

© Phelim Hoey.
© Phelim Hoey.

Given the physical effects of MS, which can fluctuate or worsen without notice, the diagnosis dealt a heavy blow. Processing the news inspired serious psychological turmoil, beyond the toll of physical symptoms. Hoey was, however, able to resume his studies, labouring on through reading difficulties, and through periods in which he lacked “the mental bandwidth required to conceptualise an idea”. Slowly, his output would begin to point subtly to his own experiences. One early project followed a community of people in pursuit of immortality, giving Hoey a chance to think through death and deterioration – to grapple with his own fears without becoming a focal point. “It was too fresh to make it about me,” he reflects.

Once the shock of diagnosis had subsided – when he felt “more comfortable in being sick” – Hoey allowed his illness to become a driving force for his work. What emerged was La Machine, an umbrella project of multiple mixed-media experiments, encompassing fluid combinations of photography, sculpture, video, installation and ceramics. One such component is a series of still-lifes, documenting various precariously-balanced sculptures he assembled in the studio. In one photograph, a burning candle flickers beneath a length of taut twine, threatening a chain reaction of collapsing parts. Inspired by DIY animal traps, images like these stand in for Hoey’s perceptions of a body playing tricks on him, setting him up for an inevitable fall.

© Phelim Hoey.

Backdropped by measuring grids, a recurring motif in Hoey’s work, further elements draw heavily on scientific studies of motion – by the likes of Eadward Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. One example saw Hoey train his lens on other people with MS. Moving through his studio with the help of walking aides, their paths were etched in single images by the repeated exposure of the same negative. More recent experiments mark a return to ceramics – porcelain models of hands and feet are dropped from a height, illuminated by the camera’s flash as they shatter. 

The project’s structure is twofold. Not only does the contained nature of Hoey’s separate experiments reflect the clinical tests to which he’s subjected, but they allow him to respond with an immediacy to the ideas that concern him at a given time. Following failed attempts by a conservative Dutch government to pass discriminatory legislation – allowing employers to pay lower minimum wages to those with a disability – Hoey responded with a series of linear wire sculptures, each representing his movement over a defined period, probing at capitalism’s unrelenting appetite for human productivity. The project assumes a diaristic quality, chronicling an oscillating relationship to mind, body and changing social contexts; matter-of-fact notes from the journals where he logs his symptoms appear intermittently.

© Phelim Hoey.

Between the cold rationality of science and the subjective realm of inner emotions, tension and contrast animate Hoey’s work. In reconfiguring clinical languages, he satirises the perceived precisions of Western medicine – that so often seek to separate mind from body. Going forward, another planned chapter will bring science’s blindspots into further focus, honing in on notions of pain measurement. In dialogue with medical professionals, Hoey is regularly asked to assess the severity of his physical pain on a 1-10 scale. What he should compare it to, though, is anyone’s guess – “how about the feeling of hearing a song that reminds you of an ex,” the artist muses.

Making work around his condition has been a means for Hoey to accept it, as well as to hurdle the psychological barriers it mounts. A potential source of catharsis also comes from community; the making of La Machine has brought the artist into conversation with others wrestling similarly disobedient bodies. As these networks expand and the project builds, Hoey’s confidence grows accordingly. “I wouldn’t mind making the work more personal,” he considers. “In the last couple of years I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of showing more of myself in the project… in making it a bit more emotional. That’s definitely something I’ll explore.”