On entering the pristine PHI Centre with its cold concrete walls and steel surfaces, the last thing on one’s mind is sentiments of the heart. However, PHI’s current exposition, Hybrid Bodies, has found the perfect home. A collaboration of Appollian rational (science) and Dionysian instinct (art), it speaks of and from the heart. In 2010, doctors Heather Ross, Susan Abbey, Patricia McKeever, Margrit Shildrick, and Jennifer Poole, along with researchers Oliver E. Mauthner and Enza De Luca, published a groundbreaking paper. In it they described their discovery of the disconnect between ‘‘what they (the patients) say and what we (the researchers) see.’’ Heart transplant patients ‘‘felt well’’, but when video-taped, their body language communicated an unease. So PITH (The Process of Incorporating a Transplanted Heart) was born. It investigated the under-examined psychological effects of heart transplantation. This controversial information — the patients’ sense of being well (physically) and yet not well (emotionally) — was presented by doctors Margrit Shildrick and Heather Ross at the opening of Hybrid Bodies. For the ‘art’ part of the project, four internationally exhibiting artists were invited to be inspired by the PITH data. ‘‘In Hybrid Bodies we looked at how the arts can be used to give voice to heart transplant recipients’ experiences and incorporate these experiences into public discourse,’’ explained artist Ingrid Bachmann, Associate Professor at Concordia University, and the principal investigator of the art-science project. She joined artists Alexa Wright (University of Westminster), Andrew Carnie (Southampton University) and Catherine Richards (University of Ottawa).

In PHI’s basement, the stainless steel washroom sinks, their sterile coldness recalling operating rooms, featured hanging ‘hearts’, created by artist Andrew Carnie. The Tender Heart, 2013, was a series of two times life-sized soap hearts. The large, and in fact rather beautiful, translucent shapes held a smaller heart. As the outer heart washed away, the ‘new’ one appeared. A heart within a heart. ‘‘A new body in a body passing,’’ commented Carnie. Created in the Montreal studio of Maude Bernier, the colourful glycerine pieces were amusing, yet triggered a sense of unease.

On the second floor, Catherine Richards’ stereoscopic photographs, Still Lives 1, 2013, required 3-D glasses – adding a sense of enhanced reality. Her large photos of hearts, pulsing with veins and arteries, lie flat on the floor. The images are covered with passionate texts, tokens of gratitude from those who live because another did not. The cool, flat reproductions are bursting with emotion.

Also on the second floor, artist Alexa Wright’s Heart of the Matter is made of felt – a homonym that sums up the exhibition. Felt, the noun, is a fabric, but can also be ‘read’ as a verb: about feeling. Felt – a fabric that artist Joseph Beuys alleged saved his life – is commonly viewed as a protective material. Dating to Sumerian times, felt is still used today by nomads for warmth. In Heart of the Matter, an 8-channel interactive video with sound, Wright communicates recurring themes of heart transplant recipients. Walking by each ‘body’ in this installation, the viewer activates a voice and learns a personal story. The personas, hanging in a row on the wall, have their heart areas sheltered by a piece of felt, cut to lie in a caring curve around the chest. Monologues compiled from individual patients’ accounts are activated as visitors approach. When many people are in the room, there is a cacophony of stories. The voices involve the viewers, who cannot help but feel the emotion.

Ingrid Bachmann’s The Gift, a 6-channel video, uses movement to explore the experience of a transplant. With dancers, sound and light, she gives ‘‘a bodily experience to something that is subtle; something that is altered and different. Transplant survivors are changed: they often choose a new birthday: the date of their transplant,” she explains. “They also feel very strongly that they’ve been given a gift: The gift of life.’’

Hybrid Bodies explores the impact that transplantation can have on the recipient’s sense of self. The show addresses identity, mythology and symbolism around the heart, be it yours or from someone else. Recalling Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s first heart transplants, carried out almost 50 years ago, this thought-provoking exhibit has aligned scientific and artistic talents to communicate art from – and about – our hearts. 

PHI Center, Montréal
January 23 to March 15, 2014, Space C