YOU can’t say Claire Cunningham lacks ambition. Her latest project, Guide Gods, is an exploration of how disability and religion intertwine. On the former, Cunningham is on familiar ground – she’s an award-winning disabled artist, having created a number of acclaimed autobiographical works (ME (Mobile/Evolution), Menage À Trois, Give Me A Reason), as well as a commission, 12, for Candoco Dance Company. On the latter, she’s finding her way; she’s not religious and never has been, so she’s beginning from a place of curiosity (“ignorance” is the word she uses) and hoping, through the work, to come to some kind of understanding. “It’s a bit of a monster concept to bring together into a show,” she says, “but it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
On a lunch break in a sun-lit rehearsal room dotted with chairs and props, tea cups on saucers, buckets of crutches, a battered-looking harmonium and some speakers, Cunningham looks like a woman in the throes of creative exploration, and maybe just a little over-awed. But then again, in a way, that’s what she intended. “Creating this piece was a choice to move away from making autobiographical work,” she says. “Artistically it was a question of, ‘Can I make work that’s not just about me all of the time?’ – although I could happily make work like that forever. But I tend to try to work out where I’ve got myself comfortable and find ways I can challenge that.”
Cunningham originally trained as a classical singer, but her work encompasses not only her voice, but aerial and acting skills, movement and dance. Crutches feature in her art (she’s had to use them since she was 14) not only because she needs them, but because they are a way for her to explore her physicality and potential as a disabled woman.
It’s not just the subject matter of Guide Gods, part of the Glasgow 2014 cultural programme, which is pushing Cunningham out of her comfort zone. To make this work she has evolved an entirely new creative process, eschewing writing the piece herself and instead using the testimony of a number of people whom she has interviewed over recent months. She has also transformed the place in which the piece will be performed, creating a more intimate and accessible space than the usual proscenium arch set-up.
“I’m used to the audience being away from me in the dark and I’m in my world and they are in theirs,” she says. “I can break the wall by talking to them but they don’t get to come too close. This piece will be performed in the round and the audience will be very close. It is, on purpose, very intimate.”
The idea for Guide Gods emerged when Cunningham was in Cambodia on a research trip. While studying land mines, she met a man called Mr Rong (“You couldn’t make that up, could you?”). “He was a disabled man and he had been a Buddhist monk for about five years. He told me that he wasn’t actually allowed to be a monk because he was disabled, he had a physical impairment. They allowed him in for five years to avoid conscription, but according to him, it was within Buddhist principles that he couldn’t be a monk because of his disability.”
Rong told Cunningham about how he related his disability to karma. Her response, she says, filtered through tricky translation, was to challenge him.
“When I came back to Scotland I did reflect on why that was my instinct,” she says. “I couldn’t find a way to engage with it which wasn’t combative and it made me think about where my belief in why I’m disabled has come from.
“For most of my childhood I grew up not really knowing that I was disabled. I didn’t know any disabled kids, I went to a mainstream school. I was very much in denial. You know you’re different but there’s a refusal to acknowledge it.”
When Cunningham was around 13, Glenn Hoddle, who at the time was the England football manager, claimed in a newspaper interview that disability was “karma… from another lifetime”.
“I remember being really upset,” she says. “It made me wonder why I was this way – what I had done in a previous life?”
In the past decade or so, Cunningham’s identity as a disabled person has been shaped by the fight for disability rights and equality. “My perspective and my changing relationship to disability as part of my identity has come from a more political outlook rather than a faith,” she says. “The closest I have to a religion is art. It is my way of asking questions, or working things out, of exploring why I am here and what my role is. It gives me a community and a sense of belonging.”
Cunningham travels extensively through her work and in doing so she’s discovered different approaches to disability – from shame-based cultures in which disability is largely hidden, to those in which the narrative of healing is uppermost. “In Islam disability is seen as a test,” she says. “As one woman put it, it’s a test from God to see whether you accept it positively or negatively. Also, for them, since there is a paradise, how they respond to the test will impact on how they will be in the afterlife. Something similar exists in Christianity too.”
Creating Guide Gods has allowed Cunningham to engage with her own less than positive experiences with certain kinds of religion. “In some senses I’ve distanced myself from religion because of the odd encounter with people who I’d describe as over-zealous Christians who have wanted to pray for me,” she says. “That’s been enough to make me put the walls up and pull back.”
There are parallels, she says, between the way religion and disability are represented in the media. “It’s the most extreme parts that always find their way into the media, the fundamentalists. Disability suffers in the same way – it’s the push to the extremes, you’re either the super crip, the paralympian, or you’re a scrounging charity case. Actually, most people live somewhere right in the middle and I’m finding the same with religion.”
It’s clear that Cunningham is fascinated by the ways in which people find what they need from their faith – how it enhances and shapes their lives. But she’s also committed to her understanding of disability. “I want to challenge the idea that disability is a negative state,” she says. “But also I want to find a way to acknowledge that for some people it is. My experience of disability is positive, but I’m not someone who’s in chronic pain, or who is a farmer in Cambodia who can’t farm because they don’t have an arm or a leg any more.”
She glances around the room, taking in the statue of the Virgin Mary and that of a Hindu goddess, arms raised. She smiles. “I’m not going to be able to cover all of this in one show. It’s about throwing out seeds, ideas, and hoping that people who come will go on to think about what it means to them. As an artist it’s about asking questions rather than giving answers – the fact that every time I’ve mentioned this piece to people their response has been, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought about disability and religion and how they might relate.’ So, if nothing else, perhaps it will just provoke a few people to start that discussion.” n
• Claire Cunningham: Guide Gods is at Greater Easterhouse Supporting Hands, Thursday (preview) and then on tour as part of Culture 2014. For more information and tickets call 0800 411 8881 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com