An artist has spent months in a university science lab, observing researchers as they explore the possibility of repairing salivary gland damage following treatment for throat cancer.
Emily Fong has been working alongside top scientists to explore the ‘afterlife’ of the organ as part of a unique new artistic exploration.
In creative collaboration, the 33-year-old, originally from Australia, has been working alongside researcher Dr Elaine Emmerson, based at The University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, (CRM) in partnership with ASCUS Art and Science.
Her artistic practice explores life and death, the embodiment of emotion and the experience of existing in a human container and is underpinned by the observation and communication of the life cycles of living things; growth, mortality and change from the micro to the macro.
Emily, who now lives in Fife, explained: “We’re following this organ’s journey.
“I go into the lab a couple of days every week and I’ve had free rein to look under the microscope.
“It’s all very transparent and respectful, an open process of witnessing via drawing and conversation.
“For me, I see the body as a landscape. Looking at this cellular level it is really quite abstract and beautiful.
“At the end of the day Elaine’s work is so beautiful anyway, so what I am doing is creating access for new audiences through a tangible method of drawing.”
Emily was inspired by Dr Emmerson’s research as a way to explore inside the body and the role of the artist as a bridge between science, society and patient experience, creating a dynamic and creative vehicle for dialogue, exchange and perspective shift.
She aims to achieve this through witnessing behind the scenes of the laboratory, the patient experiences of radiotherapy, surgery and recovery, and sharing these discoveries through drawing.
She contacted Dr Elaine Emmerson, from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, who was immediately open to collaboration within her research on the regeneration and repair of the salivary glands after radiotherapy.
Dr Emmerson was inspired to investigate the side effects of radiotherapy after the loss of her dad due to throat cancer in 2005.
Her team is working alongside national charity the Throat Cancer Foundation, (TCF) at the forefront of worldwide medical research, looking to develop a new technology that can be implanted into injured organs, which could successfully allow throat cancer survivors to salivate once again.
TCF is dedicated to reducing the impact of throat cancers on individuals, their carers and wider society.
In June 2018, Emily was selected for a residency at The Museum of Loss and Renewal (TMoLaR) in Collemacchia, Italy.
“I’m really interested in loss, not in a way that you lose yourself entirely in, but as a method of actively making space for grief in daily life,” she explained.
Following on from this residency, initial research delving into microscopic structures was undertaken at ASCUS’s publically accessible art-science laboratory in Summerhall in 2018 where Emily created a series of microscopy slides as an explorative anatomical archive.
Through this project Emily is exploring art-science collaboration as a model for public engagement, training to observe the world at a microscopic scale and developing methods of using her practice to amplify the beauty and significance of the tiniest encounter.
In partnership with ASCUS Art and Science, The Centre for Regenerative Medicine, The Throat Cancer Foundation, Surgeons’ Hall Museums, clinicians from NHS Lothian and Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Emily and Elaine are aiming to launch the exhibition, publication and associated creative learning programme in Scotland from 2020 and beyond. The process can be followed on the G-lands blog at www.emilyfongstudio.com/g-lands.
“For me, openly exploring the context of loss and discovering ways to reconnect the science with the patient experience, is fascinating. It’s about bridging,” Emily says.
“Not necessarily me trying to explain science – I’m not a scientist, I’m an artist. It’s very much about exploration and creating a space for people to talk about the issues that are present.
“With this project, the idea is to make the gland itself the protagonist. By doing so, we are exploring the experience of the gland in sickness and in health and what it might mean for the gland to return to the body in the future.
“We’re personifying the gland and naming it Osiris after the Egyptian god of the afterlife. If the gland could be a god, could it eventually return from the afterlife?
“Is Osiris alive? Is Osiris dead? It’s quirky, yes, but I like having an imaginary friend in the lab. When I’m looking under the microscope, it’s not just a thing; it’s this fluorescent landscape that I’m looking at. It’s a personality; it exists. I really like using this character to drive my creative process to invite people into this landscape that is the ‘G-lands’ – the glands.
“We’re exploring the G-lands because they’re really magic, and really beautiful.
“I like balancing of the mundane nature of saliva with the sacredness of the gland, an underappreciated part of everyday human life.”
Dr Emmerson, who is originally from Yorkshire leading the research, said: “I was captivated by Emily’s work from the first moment she showed me her sketches and she has quickly become an integral member of our lab group.
“Having Emily work alongside us in the lab has been superb for improving our lay communication skills and incredibly rewarding, as we see her ideas to convey our research flourish. I’m thrilled to see how the project is growing and developing and I’m so looking forward to head and neck cancer patients regaining a voice through this collaboration.”