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Cradle to Grave by Pharmacopoeia
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The contemporary art installation Cradle to Grave dates from 2003, and was made by Susie Freeman, a textile artist, David Critchley, a video artist, and Dr Liz Lee, who is a GP. Together they call themselves Pharmacopoeia. The installation explores our approach to health in Britain today. The piece incorporates a lifetime's supply of prescribed drugs sewn into two lengths of textile, drawn from the composite medical histories of four women and four men.
The image shows a small segment of the installation.
The textiles are a fine, pale grey net, 13 metres long and just over half a metre wide, one telling the man's story, and the other, the woman's. They are laid side by side in a long glass case. Each length contains over 14,000 pills, tablets, lozenges and capsules, the estimated average number prescribed to every person in Britain during their lifetime. This does not include over-the-counter remedies, vitamins or other self-prescription pills.
There are large and small tablets, wrapped in foil or unwrapped, in different shapes - round, oval, triangular, diamond-shaped. There are many different colours: blues, pinks, greens, browns and scarlet. Some capsules are a combination of two colours, blue and yellow, red and black, pink and blue: each tablet individually sewn into a pocket in the fabric. Laid out in groups, the tablets form solid blocks of one colour interspersed with vivid geometric patterns, where different coloured tablets lie together. The result is a visual chronology of the drugs we take through the different periods of our lives, from a child's Aspirin, to medication for common conditions such as asthma and indigestion, through to drugs for arthritis, high blood pressure and diabetes in later life.
On either side of the case, accompanying the lengths of fabric, are photographs and objects that trace typical events in a person's life. Both the man's and the woman's side begin with birth, a photograph of a baby boy with an oxygen tube in his nose, a tiny lilac-coloured footprint on a new-born baby girl's identification form.
Photographs in black and white and colour, taken from family albums from the 1930s to the present day, are arranged in order of the subjects' ages. The photographs come from many different sources, forming a composite image of life. Each has a hand-written note underneath, explaining its context. A rosy-cheeked toddler crams himself under a shelf in a kitchen cupboard. The caption reads 'Anthony, exploring.' Two little girls in new white fur hats and muffs stand in front of a Christmas tree. A young man stands proudly by his motorbike. A young woman in childbirth breathes deeply from a Entonox ('gas and air') mask. An emaciated man cradles a sleeping baby. A group of four middle-aged women blow cigarette smoke defiantly at the camera. A group of young men lift an old man's coffin onto their shoulders.
Intermingled with the photographs are personal objects that also relate to the course of the man's and woman's lives. Childhood vaccinations are indicated by a set of syringes, and childhood asthma by an inhaler. A selection of condoms in brightly coloured foil wrappers is placed among photographs of a girl's adolescence, being superseded later by years of contraceptive pills. An X-ray of a boy's fractured ankle shows the pins used to rebuild it. On the man's side an ashtray full of cigarette butts and a half-empty glass of red wine are placed alongside the tablets used to treat his high blood pressure, and a glittering silver blade on the woman's side turns out to be an artificial hip joint.
At the age of seventy-five the man's story ends abruptly, as a stark white death certificate informs us he has died of a stroke, and that his daughter was by his side at the end.
In contrast, the woman is still going strong at eighty-two, despite being prescribed medication for diabetes. The end of the fabric is rolled up, empty, waiting for more pills to be added.