‘Face to Face: The New Normal’ by Vic McEwan

Until 8 May, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery is presenting ‘Face to Face: The New Normal’ by Vic McEwan. McEwan is an interdisciplinary artist whose artistic practice participates in and reveals the possibilities of “the active role that the arts sector can play in reimagining a better world.”

Art can be many things. It can be beautiful, illuminating, provocative, powerful, confronting, poetic, and so much more. Across all its forms art traverses a broad range of stories and ideas about the world we live in and how we perceive one and other, bringing endless stories, imaginings, viewpoints and explorations to our attention.

The Face That Your Face Feels, William, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, New South Wales

Working primarily with sound, video, photography, installation and performance, and with a particular interest in the creation of site-specific art activations, McEwan often engages with medical science and health service professionals, including hospitals and specialist doctors, and their patients.

McEwan explores the complexities and challenges that people face whose lives are affected by ongoing health conditions both physically and emotionally, and in terms of stigma and social acceptance or non-acceptance.

‘Face to Face: The New Normal’ presents the artistic outcome of McEwan’s creative research project developed during a three-year residency at the Sydney Facial Nerve Service (SFNS), which examines the human experience of identity in the face of trauma and ill health through the explorations of our most obvious characterisation, the face, while also looking at “what impact a contemporary artist might have within the clinical environment.”

SFNS is a specialised multidisciplinary clinic offering expert care for patients with facial paralysis, nerve injury or facial palsy. The organisation takes a collaborative and holistic approach to ensure improved outcomes for their patients. It offers expertise in plastic and reconstructive surgery, head and neck cancer, ear nose and throat surgery, neurosurgery, and rehabilitation.

And as the first artist to be invited into the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney, McEwan’s research project forms part of his ongoing PhD, supervised by Dr Susan Coulson (Health Sciences), Dr Claire Hooker (Medical Humanities) and Dr Paul Dwyer (Performance Studies).

Through his observations and collaborative interactions with specialist practitioners and their patients in the clinical setting at SFNS, McEwan has created an extraordinary body of work revealing a range of issues, which reflect on the experiences of patients living with illness and trauma, and how they are perceived by others, with large-scale interactive installations incorporating sound, sculpture, photography, projection and performance, and the innovative mediums of 3-D scanning and 3-D printing.

Vic McEwan, Facial Nerve harp (detail), 2021. Courtesy the artist and Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, New South Wales

One example of McEwan’s interactive works can be seen in Facial Nerve harp (detail) (2021), an unconventionally designed instrument where the “Strings are roughly in the position of the five branches of your facial nerve as it crosses the face, which lay dormant in somebody who doesn’t have operation of these facial nerves…

“…So, this is a method of giving voice to those nerves. It’s something that someone can come and engage with, they can learn about the facial nerve and its five branches, whilst they can play this instrument and engage and be immersed in the sound that they create into action with the facial nerve,” the artist explains in the video presentation of ‘The Create Centre (USYD) Forum 2020 – “How to walk through walls: reimagining health and healthcare through the arts.”’ This recording and an extensive list of interviews, reviews, talks and presentations, are available at www.vicmcewan.com.

The exhibition includes a series of photographic artworks titled The Face That Your Face Feels, 2021. Working closely with SFNS patients – William Maish and Susan Andrews, and Dr Susan Coulson, McEwan has created ten portraits of Maish and Andrews faces projected onto Dr Coulson’s hands. Belonging to the nervous system, our nerves are highly complex electrical transmitters sending messages though the body. Damaged nerves play to a range of peculiar behaviours, such as pushing and pulling, vibrating and pulsating, under and on the surface of skin causing both visual and sensorial activity and pain. These portraits emanate a deep sense of doctor to patient care and seek to bring understanding to the physical, emotional and medical experiences of people living with facial nerve damage. “It’s almost like being a puppet, the strings are being pulled tighter on one side and they’re going upwards, they’re being pulled up, but I want to pull them down. I’m being pulled in all these different directions internally,” explains Andrews.

Installation view, Face to Face: The New Normal in Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, new South Wales

McEwan is also Artistic Director of The Cad Factory, which he co-founded and runs with his wife, artist Sarah McEwan. The Cad Factory is an artist-led organisation inspired to create an international program of immersive and experimental works guided by authentic exchange, ethical principles, people and place. McEwan is the curator of the Tamworth Textiles Triennial, a three-year travelling exhibition, and in 2023 will be showcasing photographic and video works in a touring exhibition titled Haunting beginning at The National Museum of Australia.

Wagga Wagga Art Gallery is located in southeastern New South Wales and is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm and Sunday, 10am to 2pm.