DeTOXIFY ME ~ Portable Diptych, gold leaf, gouache, ink & red clay on Poplar, 2014
detoxify / diːtɒksɪfʌɪ,
1. become free of toxic substances; 2. remove toxic substances from; 3. abstain or help to abstain from substances until the blood is free of toxins;
A time traveller arriving in 2014 might be forgiven for thinking we are suffering from an epidemic of toxicity. The subject is ubiquitous. There are toxins in the food chain, in the air, the water and the earth. Financial institutions collapse under the weight of 'toxic' assets, new species of specialists, including 'Happiness Counsellors' (I kid you not), proliferate, offering tips on diagnoses of toxic relationships and how to manage one’s own toxic thoughts. Our visitor soon knows the truth: we spoil and contaminate the planet and ourselves. Yet in the midst of this calamity, there is also a strong desire to remedy the situation; antidotes are discussed with almost as much enthusiasm as toxins.
Contemporary antidotes or 'detox' recipes invariably involve a return to a balance and a wisdom that has been lost; a return to nature. I find this desire to detoxify intriguing. It seems to suggest a belief that purity is attainable; that, if we succeed in detoxification, we will achieve a destined state of grace.
All this got be thinking about Medieval Diptychs. I can't help it, it's the way my mind works.
The Wilton Diptych (c. 1395–1399)
The Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery, London, is a small portable altarpiece, hinged like a book. Such objects were commissioned by pilgrims (in this case Richard II of England), for use when a traveller was caught between churches and needed to pray. Kneeling in worship before these images brought the pilgrim closer to redemption, to the cleansing of his soul, deliverance from evil and other detoxifying functions. At this time, when the universe was seen as animate, strong beliefs also existed about the power of Nature. The first anemone of the spring was wrapped in silk and worn as an amulet to ward off pestilence, while carrying a musk soaked acorn apparently guaranteed the attentions of the opposite sex.
The exterior is covered with a seaweed wrap. This 21st Century spa treatment involves being smeared in seaweed paste and wrapped in Clingfilm; the seaweed acting to draw fluid from skin cells 'detoxifying' the skin. Perhaps more significantly, in an era where slenderness is equated with triumph over temptation, is that iodine in seaweed causes the metabolism to speed up, thus breaking down fatty deposits. It is claimed that inches can be lost from thighs and tummies, an aspiration shared devoutly by many in the developed world.
Fascinated, as ever, by patterns and parallels between contemporary and historic longings , I have made a portable diptych, DeToxify Me.
Inside the diptych, the left hand panel continues with contemporary imagery: an emaciated woman is nestled on a bed of 'super' foods: blueberries and curly kale. Above her head are raspberries, source of the latest miraculous slimming foods, raspberry 'keytones' and sprigs of St John's Wort, a remedy for depression.
The right hand panel shows a posy of flowers, seen historically as beneficial: an orchid to increase libido, milk thistles and dandelion for improved digestive function and the anemone to ward off plague. Above is a cloud of scarlet pimpernels, believed to cure melancholy when infused with hot water.