Anything But The Eyes

Jennie recently received a PhD in Fine Art Practice for her research work investigating the reasons behind many people refusing to donate their corneas after death. 

There is a consistent significant proportion of potential donors in the UK and worldwide who refuse corneal donation despite being willing to donate all other organs. In the UK in 2016, 89 per cent of registered organ donors who had restricted their donation excluded the donation of corneas. The concern regarding corneal donation for some people, who otherwise want to be organ donors and understand the value of donating their corneas, is so great that the social and moral pressure to donate cannot overcome it.

Jennie investigated the common refusal to agree to donate corneas in the event of death through making artwork using the material from interviews with people who were happy to donate Anything But The Eyes. The goal of the research was to understand the concerns that underpin the unique relationship with the eyes, to provide a new perspective and understanding of the phenomenon of corneal donation refusal. She used a semi-structured interview technique to elicit beliefs and metaphors that underpin concerns, providing the material to investigate through artistic practice. Art was used as a medium to connect with and embody the feelings of participants as an alternative language to communicate and express their concerns. Having made the artworks she re-interviewed the participants to find out which most connected with their concerns.

The following themes were revealed through this work: that the physicality of the eyes could not be separated from self and identity; that some people perceive the eyes as a personal black-box recorder of their own life that cannot be shared as it will erase it; donating their eyes was equated with the erasure of identity; they felt there was an equivalence of the eyes with the self and a continuance of this association after death; they perceived a deep inter-connection between their anatomy and their lived experience with the eyes carrying the past of their owner. These findings refute the ‘rational’ Cartesian model of mind and body separation that transplantation has relied on, and fits more with the thinking of Merleau Ponty who saw perception as the very foundation of human existence.

Further insight into this issue is important. The common refusal to donate corneas is a consistent and unresolved concern, and for the participants in this research was un-movable. The findings raise questions about whether education or communication initiatives can make a difference, or whether a change to the approach to encouraging corneal donation is needed. The insights provide a greater understanding of the non-religious spiritual and philosophical concerns that underpin fears to donate, and the requirement for open discussion about the need for some people to opt-out of donation of certain organs, at a time when the opt-out system in England has just been launched which does not allow for opt-out of selected organs.

The artworks were shown at the James Hockey Gallery in Farnham, and will next be exhibited at the Mirror Gallery in South Hill Park Arts Centre, after it has re-opened.


Above: Seat of the Soul – An investigation of the perceived connection between anatomy and the lived experience. Charcoal and collage.

eye on stone

Above: Eye on Stone – An investigation of the sense of sentience of an inanimate object when an image of an eye is placed on it. Photograph of collage and stones.