Invitation. Open yourself to pain, to the suffering of others and understand and possibly control your own. Subject yourself to chronic pain-like symptoms in a purpose-built anechoic chamber, part of experimental artist Eugenie Lee’s virtual reality installation Seeing is Believing, a work in the Bec Dean-curated exhibition The Patient, currently showing at UNSW Galleries until 4 August. You can book in now.

Lee welcomes you, explains the nature of her project and that she has worked with neuroscientists who study pain, asks a set of questions and takes you to a device into which you insert a hand. You don’t want to believe what you see happening to a finger that Lee gently tugs. You’re told about the sensory and perceptual distortions that are part of and which further chronic pain, long after the initial cause has passed and even when, in some cases, damaged tissue has been repaired. This is because the signals of pain remain active.

You are led into the utter silence of the padded anechoic chamber, fitted with VR goggles and one hand placed inside two gloves. A small stimulator is attached to your wrist. As an enveloping soundscore surges from speakers embedded in the walls, Lee disappears (though you know she’s still there with you) and walls, floor and ceiling become a red void but one in which slow twirling black lines gradually take threatening shape. Navigating with the gloved hand, you can see it and your lower arm, now naked.

I won’t tell you what happens next, save to say that it is disturbing—at an emotional and perceptual level if not as actual pain. However, some of you might experience discomfort depending on sensitivity to the work’s disorienting effects and finding yourselves believing what you are seeing. These effects simulate the misdirections generated by chronic pain and its psychological impacts which loop together to form long-term conditions. Afterwards, Lee talks you through your recollection of the experience. It’s interesting to listen to yourself attempting to put it into words.

Lee writes that Seeing is Believing “conveys a type of chronic pain called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS)” by creating a “metaphorical experience” of the condition—and what a metaphor it is, familiar but unnerving in its explicitness and full of associations. Lee explains that “the project is based on neuroscience research showing that pain is integrated with a person’s environment. It can be influenced by many factors, including vision, touch, hearing, expectations and/or previous experiences.” This understanding of the complex and very personal nature of pain along with a capacity to share our experience of it through metaphor (as in “pulsing, shooting, stabbing”) and via art as metaphor (externalising the agony as object) allows for the development of pain management strategies and a considerable growth in empathy in non-sufferers. Much of the work in The Patient can be understood in these terms, taking us beyond what Elaine Scarry, in her seminal work The Body in Pain (1985), identified as the existential “unsharability” of pain.

Seeing is Believing is the latest of Lee’s works that investigate our relationship with pain. She adopted the name of a test, the McGill Pain Questionnaire, as the title of her previous work. The questionnaire uses metaphor and other dimensions of language to enable patients to describe, objectify and manage their pain. While pain might seem unsharable, Lee reveals that “McGill studies of data show an astonishing consistency in the chosen adjectives that sufferers of similar disorders have used to describe their pain.” Metaphor not only “gives pain material features, like shape, weight and colour” but also provides the beginnings of a common, empathic language.

In this earlier work she adopted two metaphors for herself in attempting to understand her own chronic pain. The first was seaweed: “Sensitive to the quality of the ocean environment, seaweed absorbs everything from the water’s mineral contents, also including toxic chemicals leaked into the ocean. As my illness is closely contributed to by environmental factors such as dioxin, I chose to employ seaweed as a metaphor for my affected organs.” The other was milk, in terms of possible genetic inheritance and environmental damage done to babies. Lee also drew on Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, in particular the role of cupboards as means of compartmentalisation with which she could manage physical and psychological pain. The work comprised two large filing cabinets closely facing each other. Positioned tightly between them, the viewer opened drawers to find vivid metaphors for the artist’s condition.


The artist

Eugenie Lee writes of herself, “I am an emerging interdisciplinary artist with a focus on medical science relating to chronic pain disease. I work with sculptures, installations, performance and paintings to communicate its complexities. Seeing is Believing is the direct result of an ANAT Synapse Residency in 2015. Thanks to a 2014 Amplify Your Art grant (a NSW Arts and Disability partnership through Accessible Arts), during an 8-month period of research, I began working with neuroscientists specialising in chronic pain research at Body in Mind (BIM) at UniSA and the McAuley Group at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) in Sydney.” Like George Khut, whose work with biofeedback addresses “the potential of [his] heart rate-controlled artworks for managing the pain and anxiety experienced by children undergoing painful procedures”, Eugenie Lee, still early in her career, makes art and science one in order to value individual subjectivity and find common ground on which pain can be understood and managed.

The Patient is a demanding experience with its plethora of illnesses and actual mortalities and varied attempts to make sense of them. Seeing is Believing is another such work, but it explicitly invites you to take a step further—into the estimation of your own pain, imagined or actual, and that suffered by others.


Also at UNSW Galleries: Deborah Kelly; John Lethbridge

In Scenes from the Death Books, Deborah Kelly uses collage in paper and animation in a witty critique of art and publishing’s ongoing erotic standardisation of the female body; and in John Lethbridge’s Imaging The Void: Making The Invisible Visible, Performative Photographs and Drawings, 2011–2016, one series of intriguing images merges the body with richly coloured and textured abstractions and the other displays exquisitely detailed large scale photographs of an Australian landscape in which appear ephemeral naked figures who evoke the Eden myth, replete with serpent. Both exhibitions open until 23 July.

Eugenie Lee, Seeing is Believing, in The Patient, The Medical Subject in Contemporary Art, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, 3 June-4 Aug