Installation: Ulysses Pact

Ulysses Pact (2021) is an installation in Bethlem Gallery’s exhibition, Art and Justice (22nd September - 12th November 2021). 

The sculpture is about dialogues: lines of communication and exchange. It speaks of a number of relationships simultaneously: the most immediate one being between the artwork and the viewer. Secondly, it could represent discussions between a person and their clinician during medical appointments, the struggles for agency and equality. The two chairs are identical and insist on equality of power, people meeting on an equal level, with no hierarchy of ‘patient’ and ‘doctor’.

Thirdly, and most importantly to me, the chairs represent a discussion within a person, their past self and future self. The chairs are empty - the past self is gone and the future self has not yet arrived.

When writing an advance directive, a person with bipolar is entering a process of looking at their past self and their experiences of crisis and distress. They then use this to guess at what care would be best for a future self who may become ill again. An advance directive is a pact with yourself, as much as it is an agreement with clinicians. The title Ulysses Pact refers to the American term for advance directives. (You can read more about the significance of Ulysses here). 

The doweling that the string loops over forms a point of exchange that occurs in all conversations. It is not secured in place and is a fragile balance between the two chairs, at risk of being undone at any minute. Tension in the strings is key, without it the installation would sag and collapse.

The chairs themselves are loaded with associations for me - they are from my family’s kitchen table and have seen many conversations for many years. They are slightly dirty and battered, and seeing them in the white gallery space makes their domestic familiarity strange to me, almost uncanny.

Lighting is key to this installation. Depending on the number of spotlights trained on it, the number of strings can double, triple, even quadruple. The shadows are as important as the objects themselves, as they are dark grey and more visible on the white wall than the white string. 

People see different things in Ulysses Pact - a musical instrument, a weaving loom, the rigging of a ship. As I walked home I saw it in powerlines overhead and shadows from railings on the pavement.

With thanks to Sarah Carpenter and Mike the technician at the gallery, who were co-creators and made the installation of the piece possible.