Growing up in an evangelical church I took communion most weeks. To a child’s mind it seemed an excitingly gruesome process: the bread, broken, shared and eaten to represent Christ’s body; the wine drunk to represent his blood. This morbid, albeit normalised, ingestion is intensified in Roman Catholic orthodoxy’s concept of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine are not mere representations, but in the moment of consumption are believed to be Christ’s flesh and blood incarnate.
This theological nuance might be described as the difference between simile and metaphor, or being like and being the thing itself. In relation to her new work, ECZEMA!, artist and writer Maria Fusco described transubstantiation as ‘the biggest metaphor you can get’. An experimental musical score and script written for one voice, it attempts not so much a visual or aural representation of the skin disease as its embodiment in sound, words and performance. Commissioned as part of a festival celebrating the NHS’s 70th birthday, ECZEMA! premiered – importantly, given the NHS’s Welsh origins – at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, where it was also recorded for future release as a vinyl EP with Matthew Herbert’s label Accidental Records.
In the windowless Hoddinott Hall, a big fat metaphor sat front and centre: a pipe organ. ‘The skin is an organ. An organ is the skin’, read the text in the lime green handouts distributed among the audience, indicating how Fusco intended the instrument to be understood. Despite this primer, it was a shock when a churning sound started up from the large pipes mounted on the far wall of the hall. The restless, animalistic rhythm formed the sonic and conceptual backbone of the piece, and a direct channelling of eczema’s definitive gesture: the scratch. Fusco is a lifelong eczema sufferer, and working with prototyper Yann Seznec, she wore a ‘scratch glove’ fitted with sensors and accelerometers in order to record the movement of her scratching as data. The particular scratch that comprises the score of ECZEMA! lasted 30 seconds. It was then stretched out to a duration of 30 minutes and ‘fed’ through the organ by the experimental musician John Harris, who controlled the overlay of live and pre-recorded material.
The script – written by Fusco and performed by Welsh actor Rhodri Meilir – follows a not-so-average week in the life of an unnamed eczema-sufferer. Monday consists of light therapy (‘I can smell my skin burning’), as a result of which by Sunday the protagonist is suffering from peeling ‘volcanic’ skin. The script is punctured midweek by a long excerpt from R.D. Laing’s book Knots (1970), in which the author deliberates on the messy distinction between self and other. This ontological snag is at the heart of ECZEMA!: is eczema, a non-perilous but often incurable condition, self or other? Alien invader or harmless native?
Many of the anecdotes included in ECZEMA! detail the personal horrors of living with the condition, and the shame this can entail. Among them are an examination by six male medical students for whom the protagonist must remove her bra, and a nurse who cannot manoeuvre her needle through the scab-thickened skin to take a blood sample. Both narrative and playfully propositional, the script is peppered with mordant phrasings that instantly sear themselves into memory: skin ‘smells like a sick toffee apple’, a scab is described as a ‘crisp brown poppy’, and a nurse with clear skin as a ‘complete parchment’, a ‘smooth proposition’.
The notation of ‘embarrassing’ bodily functions has precedents in German artist Kurt Schwitters’s ‘Furor of Sneezing’ and ‘Asthmatic Poem’ (1920s-40s), although unlike Schwitters’s interest in mimicry, ECZEMA! is concerned with the translation of the disease’s non-verbal, red-raw materials. Scars and marks tell a body’s story; they comprise a dermography, a form of writing in themselves. All writing might be considered scratching of one kind or another, an attempt to soothe an itch. ECZEMA!’s protagonist describes the embarrassment of needing to touch oneself – or having a body legible as scratching’s aftermath – and in doing so questions its stigmatisation. To what extent, say, does it echo the shame attached to masturbation?
In charting the vicissitudes of a life spent in co-occupation (with ‘an extremely rude neighbour’, ‘a screaming reigning queen’), ECZEMA! is also a coming to terms with the failure to be perfect, the failure to be blemish-free and at ease in one’s own skin. Fusco admits this has been an invaluable lesson to her as a writer, putting a brake on perfectionist tendencies. Far from a mystical framing of noble suffering, the visibility and permanence of a skin condition like eczema reminds us of the stranger and strangeness within ourselves, which might – idealistically – make us more accommodating of strangeness and stranger-ness without. In this sense, eczema has important lessons for parchments and sick toffee apples alike, if only we can learn how to read it.