A hugely powerful poster presents a sick, forlorn man in pyjamas, staring listlessly from his hospital bed. Slicing the image in two is a bright red slash, and in the corner a blade is wielded by a disembodied hand. “HEALTH CUTS CAN KILL,” reads the slogan, “their economies or your health.” It’s a brutal image, and one that sadly feels as relevant and prescient today as it did when it was created in the 1970s by artists Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson as part of their Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign. This work is currently on show at the ICA in London in an exhibition titled The Things That Make You Sick.
The show presents posters and printed ephemera by the pair from their work campaigning for improved healthcare in these then-deprived areas of London. What’s striking is not only the comparisons to political issues in the UK today, but in the stylistic similarities of their graphic design; the colorways, typography, collage, and unflinching boldness make the work seem exceptionally modern.
“The material in the show is so timely given the current political situation—not least with the NHS [National Health Service],” says the show’s curator Juliette Desorgues. “It still feels so relevant aesthetically, but also in the process the artists went through in creating the posters and the campaign. They worked in a very democratic way with the hospital, staff, and local community, and it’s so important and resonant to how younger generations are working today, both as citizens and artists.”
Dunn and Leeson’s art practice was firmly entrenched in politics, campaigning, society, and graphic design. However, in a video interview featured in the exhibition they are keen to underline that they are still very much artists, it’s just that the art they make isn’t the kind often shown in galleries. Crucially, it is also not “art market” work; to paraphrase Dunn, the idea of making work in a capitalist context was anathema to the pair and the issues they explored.
The Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign and East London Health Project were created in a time of enormous upheaval to the UK’s health services. By the mid-1970s, severe NHS cuts had been implemented by Jim Callaghan’s 1974-1979 Labor government as a result of funding restrictions from the International Monetary Fund. These cuts led to numerous hospital closures, and Dunn and Leeson’s work sought to tackle this directly through direct collaboration with the communities that were being affected and the creation of hard-hitting imagery.
Innovation is created through difference. If you work with people who are the same as you, you get sameness.
“We knew as artists the power that the visual can bring, and historically how art has conferred power onto people,” says Leeson. “We found this was a way we could confer that power through the image and through art production to people around issues that mattered, and that mattered to us.”
The announcement of Bethnal Green Hospital’s closure saw trade unionist Dan Jones approach the artists to make a video, Emergency, about the campaign, and they went on to design posters and graphics for the hospital foyer to raise awareness of the threatened closure. It worked: the hospital remained open, only to be shut later under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Today, like much of east London, it has been converted into chic private homes.
The artists based their work around the people they sought to help, becoming part of a steering committee with Bethnal Green hospital involving nurses and other staff members “not on a managerial level,” according to Desorgues. “Together, we could do something much better than we could have done on our own,” says Leeson. “Innovation is created through difference. If you work with people who are the same as you, you get sameness, but you need to know how to manage when that difference comes up together and hits up against each other. A safe space can be created though an art process and artwork, so that’s the means by which a lot of these projects can come together.”
Following on from the Bethnal Green project Dunn and Leeson went on to produce a series of posters, a video, and an exhibition to raise awareness around broader health issues in the UK; at the time including hospital closures, mental health, abortion, contraception, and women’s role in society.
While these were created as artworks, their foremost aim was as informative and functional artifacts. Aesthetically, the pair drew on the work of Soviet Russian artists like Alexander Rodchenko, evidenced in their use of black and red, and in the way they used collage to merge text, images, and different facets of culture into a single design. Conceptually, they were inspired by artists who recognized art’s role as a political and societal tool, like Joseph Beuys, Gustav Metzger, and John Heartfield.
I went on the Women’s March and the NHS marches and it was interesting to see how the images from the 1970s have come back. Even the slogans like ‘health cuts kill’ have returned.
“The fact that these issues are still being protested against, makes it all the more important to revisit this work today.”
One of the pieces in the show that most obviously marries these references is Women’s Action, a poster that repeats the image of a woman, with slightly menacing red text forming the female symbol over the collaged crowd. As Desorgues points out, pieces like this underscore the similarities in politics, health issues, and graphic design sensibilities between the 1970s and today. “I went on the Women’s March and the NHS march and you see how this imagery has come back, even the slogans like ‘health cuts kill’ have returned. The women’s symbol for instance was seen a lot in the women’s march.”
She adds: “Both projects have an incredible resonance today: aesthetically, the posters themselves use a very contemporary language through the boldness of color and play with text and composition. The material is so inspiring for artists today.
“We are also living in a time where there is a strong sense of socio-political awareness and engagement, which have been brought on by wider unraveling crises, both nationally and internationally. People feel the increasing need to organize and protest and I don’t think we have seen this on such a mass scale since the 1960s and 1970s.”