'Foreign Bodies, Common Ground' at Wellcome Collection

Wellcome Collection's winter exhibition, 'Foreign Bodies, Common Ground', opens today, offering a unique exploration of global health.

The exhibition brings together artworks including painting, photography, sculpture, film and performance, made during residencies at medical research centres funded by the Wellcome Trust in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and the UK.

The contributing artists were given a simple and wide-ranging brief: to find out about research being undertaken and produce work responding to their investigations. The result is a series of varied, moving and humorous works, recording journeys taken within the complex realm that lies between scientific processes and local communities, often on the frontlines of communicable diseases.

Although the tools and objectives of scientific research may be broadly agreed, the social relevance of vital work is often shaped by cultural contexts, and it is here – among ambiguities, frictions and negotiated understandings – that the keen and curious eyes of artists can bring fresh perspectives. 'Foreign Bodies, Common Ground' outlines the intricate web of relationships upon which the future health of communities depends.

Collaborative exchanges on data collection and use, the spread of disease and ideas, the motivations of participants and researchers, and the role of trust give rise to art animated by the search for connections between mind-sets and datasets.

Lêna Bùi's drawings, photography, video and installation explore zoonosis, the transfer of disease from animals to humans. Her work is visceral, tracing the relationship between the consumption of animals and the conditions of their breeding, killing and packaging in Vietnam. Working with the teams at the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, her work celebrates the messiness of the research she encounters and the sensitivities involved in gathering data.

Katie Paterson's work takes a longer view. Her time in the laboratories at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge inspired her enquiry into genomic archaeology and the result, 'Fossil Necklace', is nothing less than a biological history of the planet. Each of the work's 170 beads is carved from a fossil representing a major event in the evolution of life.

Elson Kambalu's residency explored the different understandings of medicine and research in Malawi. Fascinated by the cultural complexities that divide and unite research teams at the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme and the communities they work within, Kambalu interviewed clinicians and traditional herbalists, chiefs and study participants, community workers and pharmacologists, and health economists and musicians.

B-Floor Theatre are Thailand’s vanguard physical theatre company. Their performance 'Survival Games' unpacked the challenges facing immunologists at the Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Programme, from malaria research on the Thai-Myanmar border (where nine languages are spoken) to the world's highest rate of melioidosis. The exhibition features footage and a photographic montage of the B-Floor's research and performance.

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki's work gets to the heart of the ethical dilemmas and negotiations that arise in encounters between different belief systems and cultural values in Kenya. In residency at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi, the artists developed the Pata Picha Photo Studio, a mobile set with props. The studio will be operating within 'Foreign Bodies, Common Ground', alongside portraits taken in Kilifi and artworks developed throughout the residency.

Photographs from the workshops at the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, put a human face to data collection. Systematic demographic surveys are a cornerstone of the Africa Centre's work to understand the HIV epidemic, and the nine photographs on display acknowledge the contribution of the Mtubatuba community to this work. Following workshops with artist Zwelethu Mthethwa, the young photographers whose work is displayed were given cameras and a task of exploring 'impilo engcono', or good health.

Danielle Olsen, exhibition curator, says: "'Foreign Bodies, Common Ground' is the result of six very different journeys united by a generous and collaborative exchange of ideas. Placing artists within scientific research institutions is one small way of bridging discourses and practices, creating opportunities for self-reflection.

"The exhibition asks questions about what we understand by global health and the wonderfully rich body of artworks on display offers moving and often unexpected insights into scientific processes and the community relationships upon which those processes depend."

The artists' residencies ran for up to six months during 2012 and 2013 and were followed by exhibitions and performances in each country. More details of the process can be found on the Wellcome Collection website.