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Review: Lucy Beech, Pharmakon at FACT

Lucy Beech, Pharmakon
FACT for Liverpool Biennial 2016

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

You’d be forgiven for walking out of Pharmakon in the first few seconds, and you be forgiven for clicking away from this article too, but bear with it. Some things need time to explain themselves, and a film about hypochondria and self-diagnosis, that doesn’t at any point use either of those words, definitely needs all the time you can give it.

Remember that FACT is a cinema when you enter its first floor gallery, and treat it that way; you’ll be rewarded. The film, not to mention its accompanying publication, is a quirky little thing that most people can completely relate to. Whether its actual illnesses that are the topic of my fear, or things that go bump in the night, I for one, find myself trying to justify the first explanation I come across. So does the protagonist (only named as Female Bouncer) of Lucy Beech‘s film.

There are gentle nudges of what’s coming in the film’s opening sequences, and you never really get more than that. It’s a film very different to anything you’ll see in either box office screening upstairs, but one that forces anticipation and alertness. For the same reason, it makes an excellent start to any day of Biennialing you might end up doing afterwards – you’ll be looking for answers.

The publication, which owns the same name, Pharmakon, is mostly a dialogue between two artists Lucy Beech invited to construct the tone of the film; Alice Hattrick and Naomi Pearce. The book, has all the right colours on its cover to be mistaken for a garden festival pamphlet. But something’s not quite right, the off yellow, and deep green have a sickly tint to them that only really became apparent after I’d read through it.

Despite its queasy colouring, Pharmakon is one of the most honest and to the point publications I’ve seen for some time. It’s a no frills story of how a film came into being, and it actively adds to the narrative of the film; introducing the beginnings of a character-plan for Female Bouncer, and providing a little guidance on the severity of the issue this project confronts.


What makes a sick life? A lifestyle, a diagnosis, a frame? Bad luck or the influence of ‘bad people’? With my arthiritis – which has always just been there – distinctions have never been made. Health is abstract when pain is an everyday nuisance rather than total debilitation.
(Excerpt from Naomi Pearce, Pharamakon, 2016)

Their emails throughout the project contain snippets of genuinely helpful advice, paired with sarcastic hyperbole. The above is a very relatable sentiment for many, who suffer from constant pain, or irritation that can’t be simply pointed out, or rated from one to ten. But in the same email, Naomi Pearce goes on to plan the final scenes of the film, saying “Replace the ‘i’ in illness with ‘we’ and get wellness.” The idea is just a simple sample for the kind of positive fear-tactic that this film seeks to warn us of.

It might get passed by, and seen as a weird piece of cult awkwardness – which on the face of it, it could pass for – but it is worth much more than that. The film on its own is a beautiful product of the story told in the book. So as intricately connected as they are, they are works by their own reckoning, with very different results.

I’m trying so hard to avoid spoilers, as this is one of my favorite publications to come out the Biennial this year, and it deserves reading in full. If you want a reason to read it, there are hundreds, but accompanying the subject, the other story contained in the pages is a highly personal intrusion into the lives of two very thoughtful artists, brought to us by Lucy Beech, whose overall command of the project has led to an inspiring interdisciplinary study of a very modern issue.

A resonant message that everyone should want to hear, and one you’ll miss if you leave in its first seconds. FACT have a curator tour, facilitated as part of Liverpool Biennial 2016 on Saturday 20th August, which should help shed even more light on this wonderful film.