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In Dante Aligiheri’s Inferno (the first part of The Divine Comedy), the poet undertakes an allegorical trek through the nine circles of hell. Broadly speaking, it’s a spiritual and moral course, sustained by the tropes of epic poetry. Now artist John A Douglas has created an imaginative correspondence between Dante’s journey through hell and Douglas’ own chronic illness and medical transplant experience.

Showing at Chalk Horse and aptly titled The Nine Circles, the exhibition displays video and photomedia in which Douglas conjures a complex blend of epic form, digital collage, vivid imagery and intricate symbolism to explore the experience of long-term illness.

Spread across a trilogy of works including Body Fluid (2012), The Visceral Garden: Landscape and Specimen (2014) and Circles of Fire (2016- ongoing), the exhibition looks at the experience of the body of a medical patient.

For Douglas, chronic illness came in the form of renal failure. For ten years the artist was not able to board a plane and after his recent transplant surgery, he was once again permitted to fly. Using this opportunity, Douglas staged The Nine Circles across multiple sites including Turkmenistan, British Columbia and Rome. These places became the backdrop for his digital collages, which combine historic sites and characters, literary allusions, film references, surgical imagery and health workers.

The presiding site through all of the works, however, is always the artist’s body, experience and history.

Yet just as Dante leaves the realm of the strictly literal, so does Douglas. Throughout the exhibition a complex blend of the mythical and personal is played out, showing the circular and wavering relationship between healing and illness, life and death.

The Nine Circles
John A Douglas
Chalk Horse
30 November – 23 December

Tiarney Miekus