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Notes on the importance of interrelating East Asian medicine, with art and practice-based research


While there is detailed scholarship on the histories, theories, techniques and clinical outcomes of Chinese and East Asian medicine, considerably less focuses on the relationship between aesthetics and Chinese/East Asian medicines. In opening wider discussion across these fields, I will begin by giving an account of the ways my artistic research brings art and Chinese medicine into communication through using practice-led and practice-based research (as they are the main methodologies for producing ‘knowledge’ in the arts).


However, given that readers are mostly scholars or practitioners of East Asian medicine or the medical humanities, this post will first briefly introduce key methods and concepts underpinning much of the subsequent artworks discussed or displayed throughout this blog.

I will start with sketching out a rough image of what is meant by ‘aesthetics’ and/or ‘art’ in the first place, as they are central terms in my texts. I speak about art and aesthetics from the perspective of a contemporary art scholar-practitioner (who also studies and practices Chinese medicine). Within this context, the words ‘art’ and ‘aesthetics’ are always in flux because, ever since Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees in the arts began at the Open University (UK) in the early 1990s, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish aesthetics (the study of beauty and appreciation) and the philosophy of art (analysis of the nature of art) from academic artistic research. This is because the use of practice-based/practice-led research in the arts creates complex interrelationships between ontological questions about art (the nature of art), epistemological questions on aesthetics (knowledge and meaning postulated in regards to the question of beauty) and methodological questions (working methods that produce new understanding about how meaning is constructed or produced) (see Borgdorff, 2006). For this reason, the terms ‘art’, ‘aesthetics’ and ‘artistic research’ will be used somewhat interchangeably, applying each term where it seems most appropriate.


Why is art and practice-based research important to Chinese medicine?


As an acupuncturist, I have often wondered why the research I was encouraged to undertake was always so epistemologically focused. What new understanding might we have about the practice of Chinese medicine if we were allowed to approach it as an artist would - that is to say - from within the quantum field of practice? This is what my projects seek to visualise - these interrelating spaces that weave bodies, knowledge traditions, tools, creative action, time and place together into multidimensional form.


I feel practice-led/practice based research warrants further explanation here because of its diverging and sometimes purposely disruptive approach to academic norms - especially the hypothesis-answer ‘mode 1’ paradigm in research. Mode 1 research is designed to privilege rational models of knowledge production over those that are 'socially distributed, application-oriented, transdisciplinary and subject to multiple accountabilities' (Nowonty, Scott and Gibbons, 2003). It was this mode 1 research paradigm that was central to learning about how to conduct or analyse medical research during my acupuncture studies. Yet this same approach (mode 1) was directly responsible for placing the less tangible or visible aspects of Chinese medicine at a hegemonic (and colonial) disadvantage when it came to applying these ways of knowing into the framework regimen of evidence-based medicine.


Simultaneously, this situation was challenged - article after article called for significant changes to be made the design and framework of medical research itself (see Bian et al., 2006; Lao, 2012; Liu and Chen, 2015; MacPherson, 2019). But only during my doctoral studies did I appreciate the ways that using the more complex (and cybernetic) triple feedback loop systems of practice-based research could provide some solutions for the shortcomings in research design that have been so passionately argued for by Chinese medicine practitioners.

In mode 2 research (which includes practice-based research), 'learning [is understood as] as a continuous and active process of adaptation and construction in which knowledge is developed in permanent interaction between the cognitive system and its environment' (Peschl, 2007, p.137). This type of research includes complex loops that interconnect research questions, the activity and intuitive processes of the practitioner with the object of the research as it dynamically changes within a moving world. In what is called the 'triple loop learning model' of research, even intangible practices such as self-cultivation, intentionality and embodied experience are accounted for within the design of the research through the development of triple loop methodologies that move between the premise, knowledge development, corrections and the self (see Peschl, 2007, pp.138-141). Such 'embodied' approaches to research - where the relational body itself becomes a site for developing knowledge - have only recently become more solidly applied within the sciences - innovations to research that are made possible largely due to input from artists and artistic research (see Spatz, 2017 and Tantia, 2020).


I mention this is because at the beginning of this blog I will be momentarily looking at the art-medicine relationship from within the scope of contemporary art discourse from a global perspective (but my writing approach might as easily shift to an historical or anthropological perspective later on) as an undervalued standpoint that offers new ways to engage with or appreciate East Asian medicine practices. The relationship between the researcher, tools and the objectives of research are also entangled within practice-based research. This means that the outcomes of this approach has the capacity to yield a richer image of the interrelationality of how thinking and doing can work together create new approaches to knowledge production. Practice-based research generates ways of knowing that are able to resonate with the complex entangled becoming of the lifeworld that all enquiry engages with - through relating to with what can and cannot be fully known – developing a feedback loop of knowledge from the movements between knowing and not-knowing (see Marchand, 2010, pp.S15-S18).


Since my research crosses/interrelates two or more fields, modes of enquiry will likewise shift between artistic, anthropological and medical modes. I argue for the inclusion of artistic research here when writing about Chinese and East Asian medicine because it allows for a more gestural, concrete, experimental and free-flowing form of knowing than is standard in most genres of academic writing. So, at times I will be less concerned defining terms and territories than about moving diverse ideas into resonant compositions. This approach both disrupts convention and instigates new thinking that is an interesting companion of the more measured approaches of science and standard academia. Even during recent international STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to STEAM (A = art) curriculum debates, many have argued that introducing the creative, ethical and critical aspects of the arts has given rise to forms of multidimensional problem-solving that have proven positively transformative for the development of STEM projects (see Harris and de Bruin, 2017 and Taylor & Taylor, 2019). Likewise, the writing within this blog will also deploy gestural and experimental thinking-writing processes as an important part of its strategy in navigation across the spaces of art and medicine.


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