PhD student's exhibition documents heart transplant journey

Brian Keeley, an artist and PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, has launched a joint exhibition with his artist wife to coincide with the new 'presumed consent' organ donation law that came into effect in Scotland on 26 March.

Hosted by the University’s George Washington Wilson Centre for Visual Culture and supported by Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Funding programme, The Shared Heart exhibition is a response to the heart transplant Brian received in 2013 following a severe heart attack and multi-organ failure. Using a range of visual art forms, it documents the parallel journeys of Brian and his wife, Bibo, as they navigated Brian’s illness and recovery together.

A second year PGR student in Film and Visual Culture, Brian said: “While holidaying in July 2013, I suffered a heart attack, was airlifted to hospital and placed into a coma. I had a cardiac arrest and stroke and weeks later, when I regained consciousness, I was unable to move or speak while life-support machines took over the functions of my heart, lungs, and kidneys.

“It was a traumatic and frightening time, especially for my wife who had been told to prepare for the worst.  But after two months in intensive care, my condition gradually improved and eventually I was stable enough to be put forward to receive a heart transplant which would save my life. Since then I’ve used my personal experience as a heart transplant recipient to inform my artwork, and more recently my PhD research which focuses on representations of heart transplantation in contemporary art and visual culture.”

During his time in hospital, Bibo photographed Brian to help him understand his environment. Bibo said: “While Brian was in intensive care I documented his illness and long recovery with photography, which allowed Brian to see his journey from my perspective, to help him understand the severity of his situation, and to show how he was attached to the many machines that were keeping him alive.” Subsequently, these images have offered others a unique insight into the impact that critical illness has on patients and their loved ones, with some of the photos now forming part of the The Shared Heart exhibition alongside a series of Brian’s portraits of NHS staff who cared for him.

A new collaborative sculpture created especially for the exhibition titled ‘Care’ expresses a fundamental aspect of the couple’s personal experiences of organ donation and heart transplantation. Brian added: “We wanted this exhibition to highlight the importance of organ donation and to raise awareness of how crucial it is for saving lives, particularly now as the law on organ donation in Scotland has changed to a presumed consent – or ‘opt-out’ – system.”

The couple are also collaborating on an additional project, which they hope to add to the exhibition once complete, after Bibo recently received a Maverick Award from the Tom McGrath Trust to create a short film.  In collaboration with the award-winning theatre director, Susan Worsfold, the film will be based on letters Bibo wrote to Brian in 2013, as her way of feeling connected to him when he couldn’t communicate, as well as Brian’s harrowing memories of living without a functioning heartbeat for 101 days before his transplant.

Bibo said: “For this next project we will be using the many letters that I wrote to Brian as a raw and unfiltered insight into how it feels to be suddenly thrown into a strange and frightening world of critical care.”

The project will merge moving image, sound and spoken word to create a vivid and evocative account of the experience of critical illness from both sides of the intensive care bed.

Brian said: “This is the first time that we will revisit the written accounts, which will be very emotional for us, but we believe it is important to encourage informed conversation around organ donation and transplants. This exhibition has not only given us an opportunity to collaborate on projects that document our journey through what was a very difficult time in our lives, but it also allows us to share our story with others which we hope will raise awareness of how organ donation can save lives.”

Visit the online exhibition here:

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