The Artist Using Ceramics to Make a Profound Statement about Cancer Research

  • Portrait of Jacob van der Beugel, courtesy of the artist.

Art may or may not have the power to heal, but British sculptor Jacob van der Beugel is pushing it to make a profound statement about chronic illness. Working closely with a team of epidemiologists at the University of York’s Epidemiology Cancer Statistics Group (ECSG) in the U.K., where he’s an artist in residence, van der Beugel has spent much of the past year transforming reams (or gigabytes) of data about blood cancer patients into sculpture. The resulting works, two 275-pound architectural concrete panels delicately scored by snakelike patterns of rust, go on view from December 9th at the York Art Gallery.

An epidemiology statistics center might seem like an odd place for an artist residency, but the institution recognizes that art can speak volumes, visually and emotionally, in ways that academic journals or white papers cannot. To conceive of his seemingly abstract concrete panels, which he’s titled The Pathways of Patients I and II, van der Beugel looked at epidemiological data from blood cancer patients collected annually since 2004. The patient data came from 14 different hospitals in Yorkshire, a northeastern region of the U.K. whose socio-demographic diversity mirrors that of the country as a whole. Known as “pathways” in the medical establishment, each patient’s data traces the illness from the moment it’s diagnosed until recovery or death.

Trained in the studios of Rupert Spira and Edmund de Waal, two of England’s most celebrated ceramic artists, van der Beugel, 38, doesn’t have much of a medical or scientific background, but he’s clearly got a mind for data. He’s worked extensively with DNA, for instance, completing a residency at the Sanger Institute—a renowned genome-sequencing center just south of Cambridge—before moving to York. At Sangar, he created an abstracted mural-like portrait of Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and their kin, consisting of 6,000 handmade ceramic blocks whose patterns are based on their subjects’ genetic material.

  • Jacob van der Beugel, Pathways of Patients I, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

Clay has been van der Beugel’s go-to material for more than a decade, but given the artist’s tendency toward large, architectural installations, it’s no surprise that he’s moved on to concrete. But it wasn’t necessarily the material’s formal possibilities that lured him. Rather, what sparked his interest in the construction material, he says, was learning that engineers ominously refer to rotting concrete as “concrete cancer,” something that happens when steel rebar starts rusting inside and degrading the concrete. “You think of the term ‘concrete’ as meaning something that is definitive and truthful and doesn’t change, like the ‘concrete truth,’ but the reality is that everything degrades,” he says.

With concrete cancer in mind, he began learning about the behavior of blood cancers during his York University residency, and was struck by curious socio-demographic parallels between the two. “Concrete is used in all socio-economic areas, spanning all social environments,” he says. Similarly, “Hematological malignancies, or blood cancers, are one of the few types of cancers that tend to span all socioeconomic sectors. You’re no more likely to get a blood cancer if you’re from a poor or affluent background, and that’s unique in cancers.” Lung cancer, for example, tends to be more common among poorer populations, while breast cancer strikes more affluent demographics.

He was moved to make the panels when he learned that, post-diagnosis, blood cancer patients had different experiences of the disease, based largely on social and demographic factors. “We are very used to seeing more disadvantaged people get the cancer in the first place, but that’s not the case with blood cancer. It’s much more evenly spread across society,” says Steven Oliver, Senior Lecturer in Population Health at the University of York, and one of the researchers with whom van der Beugel worked closely. “But you see really marked patterns after they have been diagnosed, depending on their circumstances, where they live, and so on.”

  • Images courtesy of the artist.

“You start out from a level playing field, but then it turns out, low and behold, that if you’re from a poorer background, you’re more likely to be overcome by long-term chronic conditions,” says van der Beugel. To illustrate this phenomenon, he conceived of a way to both physically and symbolically correlate the data. He mixed different material aggregates—bits of smashed brick, tarmac pebbles—into the powdered concrete in order to create variations in its density, then poured the substance into frames. Certain areas are consequently more refined, like terrazzo flooring, representing more privileged patients, while others are quite raw. He then inserted steel circular reinforcement bars, or rebar, into the wet concrete, and allowed rusty water—an intentional analogy to blood, as both contain oxidized iron—to pool around them and wend their way through the material.

In the first panel, Pathways of Patients I, the rust trails are arranged haphazardly. This is representative, says van der Beugel, of the “messy, unfiltered, noisy data” that the epidemiologists are confronted with when they initially gather their information. In the second panel, Pathways of Patients II, the same lines are rearranged according to the length of the pathway. “On the left, you have longer pathways from higher socio-demographic backgrounds,” says van der Beugel, explaining that the rust has easily carved its way through the “concrete landscape.” Toward the right, meanwhile, the rust has sunk deeper into the concrete and struggled to get through the more rough-hewn muck. The difference in the trails is analogous, of course, to variations in the difficulties of one’s daily existence as it pertains to healthcare.

In the U.K., where healthcare is free, the differences are not a matter of whether or not someone has the resources to buy more care. Rather, the differences are a matter of how quickly one’s cancer is detected and how closely one might adhere to a treatment plan, says Oliver. “If life is tough for you, then maybe lots of other things need to get done before you can see a doctor. You have different priorities, and a later presentation can mean that things are stacked against you.”

  • Jacob van der Beugel, Pathways of Patients II, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.

A strong humanitarian thread runs through the epidemiological mission as a whole.  “Our principle aim is not simply to collect data and make it available, but to use the data in order to benefit, in some way, patients and treatment,” says Eve Roman, Professor of Epidemiology at York and director of the ECSG. The question remains, however, as to whether van der Beugel’s translation of all that data and statistics can, in fact, effect change. “The patterns you see really bear repeating and taking into the public domain,” says Oliver. “And I think art has the ability to do that.”

Meredith Mendelsohn 

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