Julian Walker

Treat Yourself, 2003

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"Collection: Acts of Faith", commissioned by the Wellcome Trust for "Treat Yourself", Wellcome Gallery, the Science Museum, London, May - September 2003


Collection: Acts of Faith looks at how the ideas of faith, dependence and hope are made physical in healthcare. Referencing the mediaeval doctrine which proposed the medical efficacy of plants because of their resemblance to parts of the body, a vast number of non-prescription tablets are carved into ex-voto objects of those parts of the body which they are designed to treat, and presented as a body-map.

The work considers how we react to the notion of failure of the body, how this produces emotions of fear and hope, which are responded to with medicines and health supplements. The process of healing or shoring up proposes an experience of ceding control of the body to someone or something exterior a doctor, a parent, a pill, a herb, an elder. A structure of delegation and faith, a complicity in the creation of an authority, human or chemical, over the body of the self allows this to happen.

Outside the process of delegating hope and dependence to the orthodox medical professional class, the patient is largely left to administer medicine and health supplements to him/herself. The patient has to deal with a thing, an object, a physical item. Roy Porter describes this process in the eighteenth century as the "reification of healing into commodity form". The consuming of manufactured proprietary medicines has a long history of varied status; again see Porter's analysis of proprietary medicines as among the first manufactured consumer perishable items. The work, in overlaying the industrialised process with the patent manual work of carving, emphasises the anonymous authority of the manufactured tablet.

The work considers the physicality of healthcare tablets, and how these relate to those pre and post-treatment objects, the wax votive models of limbs and organs in need of treatment. Since antiquity these have been used both to focus the request for healing, and as objects of gratitude following healing. Sometimes, particularly in cases of Greek and Roman votive offerings, these have been full sized, possibly as a reflection of status of the giver or a degree of fervour or desperation. However, in the Christian period we have become accustomed to these being of much smaller scale, vastly smaller in scale than the organs and limbs themselves; similarly, the pill we consume has to be small enough to enter the body easily. Both the size of the tablet, and the translucence of the wax object, reference the visual aspect of the jewel.

Also to be considered is the role of the part, as opposed to the whole. The votive object has a role before cure, to concentrate the desire for healing in the act of communion with the saint, focussing this relation specifically on the affected part of the body; the medicine similarly concentrates the experience of pain and healing onto the part rather than the patient as a whole.

As we pay for our Aspirin, out J Collis Brown's Mixture, our Viagra, our vitamins, our Morse's Indian Root Pills, we are participating in a historical act of faith. We are continuing a long tradition of consuming proprietary manufactured goods, and by delegating responsibility for the process of healing and maintaining health we are elevating the manufactured item to the status of the physician. We do not participate in the healing process, we consume it. We may know what is wrong with us, which organ or limb is malfunctioning, but we seldom know how the constituent parts of a medicine act on our system; we only wish it to happen. Medicine then becomes the physicalisation of hope; as the medicament produces the desired result repeatedly, it becomes the physicalisation of faith.

The theme then is one of consumption, faith, dependence, subjection of the self, and thankful homage; just as a devout eighteenth century Catholic might offer a wax effigy of a child in thanks for a safe delivery, or a nineteenth century mother despair of survival without Laudanum, a twentieth century neurotic could describe Valium as his crutch. The medicine is consumed, but we would now consider it na´ve to offer up an object in relief. Our homage is dependence, and the ingestion of the healthcare product into our own physical identity. Rennies cured my indigestion once; I will always use Rennies, will seldom go anywhere without them, and now consider them part of the process of my body.


The work uses 1452 tablets and capsules, comprising:

Boots dispersible Aspirin 75mg

Tesco multivitamins and minerals

Tesco complete multivitamins and minerals

Health Aid Selenium

Waitrose paracetamol

Waitrose multivitamins

Sage Organic multivitamins

Cuprofen (ibuprofen)

Mucron decongestant


Boots panadol

Boots multivitamins

Boots Healthy Teeth supplement

Doans backache pills

Boots antioxidants multivitamins and minerals

Sainsburys multivitamins and minerals with ginseng

Sainsburys childrens multivitamins and minerals

Boots iron and vitamin C

Boots calcium and vitamin D




Health Aid Aquaflow


Boots indigestion tablets

Ferrous sulphate



This work is now in the collection of the Wellcome Trust.