I visited 2 institutions this weekend, both slightly comedic. The first was the dementia unit to which my grandma has been moved after a rather dangerous attempt to cook parts of her sofa in an oven. The second was Dulwich Picture Gallery, to see the exhibition of 6 of the 7 St Sebastians created by Guido Reni in the Seventeenth Century.
The dementia ward has an archetypal municipal living room where almost identical old ladies sit around the circumference in high-backed wipe clean armchairs, trying to make sense of what is happening to them. I sat talking with my Grandma, but our conversation was frequently interjected by women boisterously shouting out choruses of fractured memories. A dark playschool dynamic was prevalent, with each woman competitively trying to prove her individuality, trying to prove her worth over the others around her.
Despite the obvious repetition of the frail bodies and minds, the biggest similarity between these inmates was in their failure to recognize their reflection in each other’s eyes. Instead the room was filled with women desperate to prove the mistake that had occurred in placing them there, but mostly forgetting this thought before it could be fully formulated each time.
The Reni exhibition has a similar set up with repetitive images of similar figures around the circumference. The gallery suggests that this exhibition questions contemporary perceptions of replication and originality, showing the art as firmly workshop based and commercial – an image painted to order by a variety of assistants under the guidance of Reni. The curator, Xavier Salomon, suggests that the viewer can play a game of spot the difference, using the proximity to decide which is ‘the best’ St Sebastian.
However the real interest in viewing these paintings in one hang is shared with the dementia ward. In their similarities and repetition these paintings do not speak to each other, more than shout over each other: a loud camp clamor of flailing martyrs. The sainted martyr cannot exist as part of a group. The monolithic truth of the individual is at once amplified and through this clamor is then annulled. By placing these paintings together the individual ecstasy and agony becomes a parody. As a whole however, the hang leaves the room filled with the resonances of something lost: a barely remembered intent and failure that the paintings echo in each other. An interesting show that uses its hang to create new readings and understandings.