The first time I saw Ellie Kammer’s Endometriosis (Volatility) I felt a physical jolt of recognition. A body appears weary, blood seeping from wounds unseen. Here was a portrait not of a person but of an illness. Here was endometriosis. Here, therefore, was me.
A life lived with endometriosis is a life spent fighting for help. While the disease affects roughly one in ten women, it is still drastically under-researched, underfunded and misunderstood. There is no known cause, there is no cure. Treatments are invasive, expensive, and only ever stop-gaps.
Kammer has regularly used her own body to tell the story of endometriosis on canvas. In this new exhibition she goes one step further, creating a private viewing room to watch laparoscopic vision from one of her own surgeries.
The film acts as a parallel to Kammer’s more traditionally created works hanging nearby. The subjects on canvas, becoming more and more segregated and bloodied, speak of physical devastation. But these smaller works also address the psychological effects of the illness. The disease, actively invading and smothering its host both mentally and physically, cruelly projects a contradictory appearance of being well.
Kammer lists Gottfried Helnwein as a strong influence on her practice, particularly his 1988 installation Selektion - Neunter November Nacht. The 100-metre wall of portraits is an unflinching reminder of Reichskristallnacht (Crystal Night), and an examination of the attitude behind the roots of the Holocaust.
The effect of this work on Kammer is clear: a dogged ambition to bring acts of repression out into the public eye. Kammer’s works, also often large in scale, act as evidence not only of endometriosis itself but of discrimination against women more broadly – depicting our loss of agency and autonomy, in both sickness and in health.
Kammer’s exploration of endometriosis is evocative and political, and never more so than in The Host. The blood – circling through our bodies, scarring organs and damaging nerves – stains our sheets and our psyche. We garner the strength to leave our beds to seek help, but as our symptoms and pain are dismissed and ignored, the blood continues to follow us everywhere.
The Host, 2018
Ellie Kammer's Endometriosis (Imponderable) depicts a woman in repose. She lies on her back, legs bent and angled to the left, bathed in golden light. Only the barest sliver of her profile is visible. In lieu of regarding her face, our eye is drawn to the landscape of her body: the dark shadow that falls from thigh to pudendum, the delicate tufts of pubic hair, the organic swell of her breasts. It could be a peaceful image — were it not for the erratic rivulets of blood that mark her stomach and thighs. This painting, and all the paintings in NESCIENCE, can be understood as a provocation: they externalise the inner suffering of women, bringing to light a disease that, although rarely spoken about, effects one
in ten women.
Kammer peoples her work with poignant bodies rather than model ones: fleshy and blunt, with breasts, bellies and thighs that have a palpable weight. Subtly visible beneath the skin are bluish rivers of veins. These bodies are imperfect. Vulnerable. In them, we see Kammer's devotion to recording in unflinching detail the experience of endometriosis. These paintings are pain, made flesh.
Kammer paints in an almost sculptural way, manipulating the oils in short, dabbed marks or intuitive, arabesque curves. The vocabulary of her palette catches the light: butter-cream, rose madder, sienna, salmon red, the odd insinuating purple. Even her blues are light-filled. In each portrait, the eye is drawn to the blood. Rendered in viscous dabs and smears, the use of startling red and thick, soupy blacks serve as a reminder of the harsh reality of her disease.
At the heart of the exhibition are two self-portraits, resonant with troubling beauty. In both paintings, Kammer turns her face away from the viewer; in both paintings her eyes are closed. She paints herself not nude in the classical sense, but naked: exposed, vulnerable. Observe the thickly applied, suggestively broken paintwork, the intimately unfinished finish — this is self-preservation through expression. 'Distorted perspective', wrote photographer Grete Stern, 'will always give the effect of insecurity.' These portraits are both an expression of Kammer's insecurities and a gesture towards resolving them: the artist regards her own body, and perhaps, through the act of painting, arrives at a place of peace.