Somerset House Studios

Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy: An Interview with Leah Clements

03 Feb 2020

Ahead of presenting performance work Hyperbaric for Somerset House Studios' Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy, we talked to artist Leah Clements about the research and experience behind the piece; one of six new commissions responding to the idea of 'wellness' as part of the new year programme. 

Your work looks at emotional experiences; empathy, intimacy and the relationship between the psychological and the physical. Could you say a bit more about these ideas in relation to your practice?

My work is mostly based in film and performance, but also extends to things like group meetings, installation, and a VR game I made where you’re stuck in bed. Those themes you mentioned play out in different ways across different works. A live work I carried out at Chisenhale Gallery in 2015 called Beside for example, was set up as a talk between Prof. Sian Harding who is a research cardiologist, and Simone Severini who is a physicist. It was two academics having a conversation about their disciplines, but it was almost like a blind date in that I made sure they hadn’t met before, and hadn’t had a chance to discuss what they were going to talk about together, and also that they sooner or later had to address the elephant in the room which was that both of their research has hugely romantic metaphorical overtones.

Sian specialises in a type of heart attack called Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, also known as ‘heartbreak syndrome’, as the vast majority of cases occur in people who have just been bereaved - usually older women who’ve just lost their partner. Simone’s specific area of research is quantum entanglement: a phenomenon in physics where two particles develop a special relationship where a change in one immediately causes an impact on the other - even if they’re as far away from each other as one on earth and one on a star. I chaired the conversation and gave the odd prompt, but mostly Sian and Simone had to find their way through communicating these things to one another and finding elements in common between the two of them.

'Beside', live work, Leah Clements, Chisenhale Gallery, 2015.

In my more recent work Collapse (2019), a film shot in black and white thermal imaging, I wanted to think about forming a collectivity from individual people who share a particular experience in common: falling asleep in times of stress, anxiety, or danger. In it, we hear the voices of seven people who experience this sensation describing when it started happening, the circumstances in which it happens, and how it feels. These voices are heard over footage shot half outdoors, half at a sleep clinic where I was being tested for narcolepsy.

'Collapse' (film still), Leah Clements, 2019.

In thermal imaging things that can usually be distinguished can’t be, like the borders of the pupil and iris of an eye, and things appear that are not usually visible, like the traces of warmth a body leaves when getting out of bed. There’s an odd presence/absence, a space where things are slightly off, like a parallel place where you might go to escape when no other option is available. The film is interested in the act of collapse in the face of untenable circumstances as a form of resistance, though a complicated and involuntary one.

In both these works, and in most of my practice, there’s an interest in the relationship between emotions and bodies, and how those things aren’t necessarily separate. I think there’s also a lot to do with forced individualisation and attempts to re-commune, which has a lot to do with intimacy and empathy.

'To Not Follow Under' (film still), Leah Clements, Science Gallery London, 2019.

For our Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy programme you’re presenting performance work Hyperbaric, a piece considering the psychology of spaces of care. Could you tell us a little about what to expect from the new commission and the research behind it?

After making To Not Follow Under (more on that below), which involved revisiting a hospital room I’d stayed in as well as a hyperbaric chamber, I felt like I wanted to think more about those kinds of psycho-interior-architectures of healthcare, and what it feels like to exist within them. I interviewed seven people who’ve spent prolonged periods of time in hospital, and who all had different experiences, but there were definite themes in common. Consent, ward-mate dynamics, and a lack of privacy all came up. Some of them talked about the structure of the rooms down to the weight of the furniture and the plastic crunchy bedsheets, a lot of their descriptions were quite poetic in their imagery.

'To Not Follow Under' (film still), Leah Clements, Science Gallery London, 2019.

I also wanted to know more about different people’s experiences of finding themselves in a group of fellow patients within those spaces, who they have something specific in common with in terms of the reason they’re in hospital, but maybe nothing else. What are the good bits of that, like solidarity through being subjected to the medical healthcare system? What are the more difficult things around that? We’ll hear from the people I spoke to in the performance, though I felt that having the actual people put their bodies, faces, names in the space in front of an audience might not be the best thing to do, since what they spoke to me about is a potentially quite sensitive time in their lives.

Instead there will be channellers: people bearing witness to those experiences on behalf of the ones who lived it. Also, it’s the first time I’ll be performing in my own live work since Beside at Chisenhale Gallery in 2015, and I’m looking forward to taking part in a really direct way.

'To Not Follow Under' (film still), Leah Clements, Science Gallery London, 2019.

You recently made a new film To Not Follow Under for the Science Gallery London’s exhibition ON EDGE: Living in an Age of Anxiety. The film features a Hyperbaric Chamber, a facility that lends your performance Hyperbaric its name. What’s a hyperbaric chamber and why does it hold such interest for you as an artist?

Just to introduce that film, To Not Follow Under considers the limits of care and empathy, and the point at which a person has to prioritise their own wellbeing in order to continue to care for another. In it we hear from three people in positions of care or supervision: Dr. Guy Leschziner - a sleep neurologist; an anonymous psychotherapist; and Victoria Brown - a commercial diver who supervises dives and carries out rescues. We shot the footage in a swimming pool, Guy’s Hospital Sleep Disorders Centre, and the chamber at London Hyperbaric (which, by coincidence, is in the hospital I was born in).

A hyperbaric chamber is a room or unit that pressurises air in order to increase the amount of oxygen the patients inside it can absorb. It’s most commonly used to treat decompression sickness, or ‘the bends’, when a diver comes up too quickly from the deep. It can be used to treat a lot of things though, carbon-monoxide poisoning from a house fire or suicide attempt for example.

'To Not Follow Under' (film still), Leah Clements, Science Gallery London, 2019.

I spoke with the staff at London Hyperbaric, who were incredibly generous with their time and told me about how it works, the conditions they treat, and what it’s like to work there. It feels like quite a special place, they have tonnes of thank you cards at reception from patients they’ve treated, and I got the sense that they take really good care of the people who come in.

Something in me though is drawn to the more sinister aspects that the chamber could represent: the fact that you’re locked in, and it takes a minimum of two minutes to get out because it’s dangerous to decompress any faster, and the way it looks like a submarine or space unit. It lends itself well to the embodiment of many of the issues raised by the people I spoke with for this performance, like not being able to leave, feeling trapped... There’s definitely an aesthetics of horror to it in my mind, though that’s really not the reality of how treatment there actually plays out. There’s some focus on that element of horror in this performance, you’ll hear some things from my research there that I’m looking at through that lens...

'To Not Follow Under' (film still), Leah Clements, Science Gallery London, 2019

As someone who identifies as ‘crip’, i.e. not conforming to standard ideas of good health, what does the idea of wellness mean to you?

Since I’m chronically ill, I’m never going to be ‘well’ in a way that conforms with what the societal expectations of that are. I think Taraneh Fazeli put it so nicely in ‘Notes for “Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying” in conversation with the Canaries’ when she said ‘wellness’ culture is fundamentally a capitalist enterprise, which aims to sell our bodies back to us’. I try to consider instead the resistant potential of not conforming to ‘wellness’, of having a body that doesn’t fit, that sleeps when it’s supposed to be producing. It is complicated because there’s a lot of research around wellness that feels really relevant and helpful - studies on sleep that suggest getting more of it can be so good for you in so many ways, but of course, if it doesn’t benefit capitalist structures, we don’t get to reap the results.

There’s this meme that articulates the way ‘wellness’ culture plays out in labour structures really succinctly. There are so many yoga memes on chronic illness Instagram, because we all get told to try different strains of this ‘wellness’ paradigm, to exercise or clean-eat ourselves ‘healthy’. Of course, what that ends up doing is placing the blame back on the individual for their illness, and for the things they may not be able to do because of it, or often, because the social structures surrounding that person don’t accommodate their impairment. I think the best medicine for that kind of hyper-individualised blame is to un-hyper-individualise by uniting, sharing, and communing, a lot of which happens online. When you see your experience echoed in others you can begin to de-programme your internalised ableism, and it’s also a lot harder to argue with a big group of people who are confirming and validating one another.

Leah Clements presents Hyperbaric for Hyper Functional, Ultra Healthy on 4 January 2020.


Leah Clements is a London-based artist. Her work explores self/other boundaries and collective identities, the subconscious, and the impact of emotion on the body.

Recent exhibitions, screenings, events and residencies include (2019): ‘Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary Exhibition’, Baltic39, Newcastle, ‘On Allyship’, ICA, London, ‘Beyond the Perfect Image’, Wellcome Collection, London, 2019, ‘Still Here’, National Gallery of Art, Vilnius (2018): Artist residency, Wysing Arts Centre, ‘I never promised you a rose garden’ Matèria, Palermo, On Cripping ICA, London, Artist residency, Rupert, Vilnius, ‘Skin of the Eye Act II’, Vermilion Sands, Copenhagen, (2017): HereNow Art+Technology Residency, Space, London, (2016): ‘we felt the presence of someone else’, Jupiter Woods, London, (2015): ‘Beside’, live work, Chisenhale Gallery, ‘you promised me poems solo show’, Vitrine, London.

In March 2019 Clements launched Access Docs for Artists: an online resource made in collaboration with Lizzy Rose and Alice Hattrick to help disabled artists create and use access documents.