Artist and chronic-pain veteran Eugenie Lee is bringing art and science together to help Sydney-siders understand the way pain works
Stop for a second, and define “pain.” When we ask artist Eugenie Lee to do this, her face twists in a smile: “this is still being defined,” she says, and quotes the International Association for the Study of Pain’s current definition: “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”
This definition, from their Chronic Pain manual, is followed by a long note that stipulates, among other things, that “Pain is always subjective”; that “It is unquestionably a sensation in a part or parts of the body, but it is also always unpleasant and therefore also an emotional experience”; and that pain “is always a psychological state.”
“There’s still so much we don’t know [about the brain],” Lee concludes. “As we know more about the brain, we’ll find out more about pain.”
Lee’s latest work, a participatory installation called Seeing is Believing, pitches its tent at the frontier of pain science. Part of the installation involves a latest-model neuroscientist-designed machine called ‘The Mirage’, which visitors can roadtest for free as part of her artwork.
The other key component of the installation is an experience, led by Lee, that takes place in a small custom-built anechoic chamber and involves an virtual reality headset and a sensory experiment involving the participant’s hand.
Start to finish, the experience (which is free but must be booked in advance) takes about 30 minutes, and after it you will have a greater insight into what pain is, how it works, and your emotional relationship with it.
Lee will even administer a "pain threshold test", to gauge your tolerance levels.
But don't worry: the experience is not painful, per se. Any sensations you experience are gradual and can be stopped at any point that you feel discomfort.
Lee, who has suffered endometriosis-related pain for 20 years, designed the artwork to build empathy between people who experience chronic pain, and those who do not; and to communicate information both ways between neuroscientists (who by trade are interested in objective information) and sufferers of chronic pain, who she says often struggle to communicate their subjective experiences.
“Art is such a powerful metaphorical tool,” says Lee. “It surpasses language and cultural barriers. And if people can experience chronic pain themselves, and come up with their own philosophical thoughts about it, it becomes personal.”
Seeing is Believing is part of the group exhibition The Patient, at UNSW Galleries in Paddington.