Bedding In: An interview with Liz Crow

In response to the coalition's benefits overhaul, Liz Crow is Bedding In.

Bedding In, the latest performance by artist-activist Liz Crow, has been created in response to the coalition’s attack on disability benefits. Over three days, Crow, who has a disabilty herself, will perform her “bed-life”: “I wear a public self that is energetic, dynamic and happening. I am also ill and spend much of life in bed,” says Crow. “The private self is neither beautiful nor grown up, it does not win friends or accolades, and I conceal it carefully.”

For forty minutes each day, viewers will be invited to approach the bed and engage Crow in “Bedside Conversations”, discussing the piece and its context. Here, Crow talks about disability hate crime, the role of art in social issues and the Paralympics' media coverage.

You ascribe a 50 per cent rise in disability hate crime to a propagandist campaign. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Over the past couple of years, and especially in the run up to the Paralympics, I’ve watched an extraordinarily divisive reporting of the benefits reforms in the press, particularly in the tabloids, across the political spectrum. They portray disabled people as inventing or exaggerating impairment, being too lazy to work and living lives of luxury at the taxpayer’s expense. They tell a story of disabled people as fraudsters and scroungers, in complete contradiction of the DWP’s own recorded fraud rate of 0.3 per cent. Alongside this press reporting, the reporting to police of disability hate crime has risen exponentially. Talking to other disabled people I know, many of us find we have become hyper-vigilant when out in public, and vast numbers have experienced disability-targeted aggression or worse. There’s been a rise in reported disability hate crime of 50 per cent and research from Glasgow Media Centre has at least partially attributed that to the fraudster/scrounger rhetoric. It’s a dangerous reporting in a time of austerity that encourages the general population erroneously to place blame on disabled people for the country’s financial woes.

What role can art play in politics and social issues?

Art can give glimpses into other people’s lives and broaden our view of the world. It can ask questions and present viewpoints not seen elsewhere. Artists are good at communicating, at raising difficult questions, and at exploring creative alternatives. Playful or provocative, it can make us see and think differently, make an emotional connection to audiences and go on working long after the piece is officially over. It can act as a provocation to spark a deeper debate about particular issues. We can only make change for the things we know about; for me, the most exciting art brings to light lives on the margins and invites the onlooker to become a part of creating change. In showing art in a range of settings, from galleries to schools, festivals to community settings, we can reach audiences who wouldn’t usually touch art, and audiences who wouldn’t usually touch politics, and take both by surprise.

Do you think participatory art such as Bedding In is a particularly effective means of engaging the public in social issues?

One of the things that Bedding In can do, which I haven’t much seen elsewhere is that it can portray the human story set within its broader social context. So the work is not just about me; I am symbolising the thousands of people who live a bed-life, but, particularly through the Bedside Conversations, I am able to enter into a dialogue with the public in a way that allows them to ask questions, relate it to their own lives and take it out beyond the gallery space. I could write about my bed-life, but there is something about playing it out in a public space that goes deeper to the heart of what that life means against the current backdrop of benefits reform. It is an opportunity to raise more challenging questions and to set the bed-life overtly within the present difficult political climate.

What do you hope would be the outcome of your performance?

I want to make a hidden group of thousands visible, but also to demonstrate that what others see as contradiction, as fraud, is simply the complexity of real life. For those of us with complicated, fluctuating and invisible impairments, the new benefits system has proved to be incapable of supporting us appropriately. The assessment process fails to measure these kinds of impairments and so we fall through the gaps. In doing so, we become even more invisible. My hope is that Bedding In will join a much larger conversation of disabled people, supporters, the Sparticus campaign, DPAC, Black Triangle, UK Uncut and others; that by using a wide range of approaches we can be much more effective in reaching many more people. My hope is that these voices combined will inform the public enough that their outrage will force a change in benefits reform towards a system that is more humane.

What do you make of the coverage of this year's Paralympics and its portrayal of those with disabilities?

The Paralympics was a strange, wild collision course for me, where the extremes of benefits and Paralympics reporting hit just as I make my way to my own benefits tribunal. It was exhilarating to see disabled athletes so completely and naturally at home in their bodies, and I think it shifted many people’s ideas of what disabled people can be, yet the experience was also bittersweet. Just as the athletes will struggle, away from the Olympic stadium, to live up to that ‘superhuman’ ideal, in the context of benefits reforms, the idea that “with determination” any disabled person (or non-disabled person!) could be superhuman has repercussions that are deadly serious. At the root of this is that we are measuring two very different groups of disabled people; the benefits classification system is based on a mechanical view of impairment that fits most athletes but which excludes those of us with chronic and fluctuating conditions, even though we are the most likely to be out of regular employment and in need of ESA.

What do you have planned next?

I’ll be taking another version of Bedding In to Salisbury in April (just as the replacement of DLA with PIP hits), this time occupying my bed round the clock for three days and broadcast on webcam.

Bedding In takes place at the Ipswich Art School Gallery as part of the SPILL Festival of Performance until 3 November.

Liz Crow in Bedding In.
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle