Foyer gallery

Decay Theory






Caitlin E. Littlewood’s Decay Theory (2019-ongoing) is a multimedia body of work informed by the Swedish sugar experiments, which were carried out between 1945–1954 at Vipeholm Hospital in southern Sweden. The combination of archival imagery and Littlewood’s own studio photography examines new visual possibilities where a recontextualised archive of teeth and the mouth is created.

Originally from Australia, Littlewood was first introduced to these historic experiments through her Swedish friends. The Vipeholm experiments involved feeding the intellectually disabled residents of the hospital excessive sugar in the form of a sticky caramel, in order to effect then research tooth decay. Many of the patients did not receive proper nutrition and their health suffered greatly. For some patients the outcome of the experiments was fatal. The results of the experiments have long been taught in dental schools globally, but the ethics of the experiments have only been discussed in Sweden in recent years. Sveriges Radio broadcasted a investigative documentary about the experiments in 2010, starting a dialogue about the mistreatment of Vipeholm’s patients. Since then, relatives of the Vipeholm patients have finally started to learn the truth and find out what actually happened to their relatives under Vipeholm’s care. 

After moving to Sweden in 2018, Littlewood started researching the studies and looking for visual documentation that she considered evidence of this hidden history. In doing so questions of ethics, the way in which historical narratives are formed, and social outcomes and understandings of historic trauma were brought to the forefront of her research and image making. To her, it came as a surprise that perhaps only one third of her Swedish acquaintances had heard of these experiments. Countering this, every Swede she encountered enjoys and is well-versed in one of the direct social outcomes of the Vipeholm experiments—Lördgasgodis, “Saturday Candy”, the concept whereby you can eat as much candy as you like, but only on Saturdays.

An ongoing element of Littlewood’s project is the Decay Theory Repository visual database. The database consists of personal items that have been donated and loaned, culminating in a digital museum of teeth and the mouth. Each item has been catalogued and temporarily accessioned, allowing public access to the collection. The photo-based archive outlives the physical objects, which are deaccessioned at the end of each of their loan periods. 

Six images from Littlewood’s project are on view at the foyer gallery at Photo North – Northern Photographic Centre. Five of the images—inkjet prints mounted on dibond—are taken from the Decay Theory Repository database, representing a cross-section of the type of objects that have been accessioned into the digital collection. The images depict dental items placed onto a black background—elevating and removing them from the objects’ original meaning and purpose, and at the same time celebrating the objects’ qualities. The sixth image on view at the exhibition—inkjet print on newsprint stock—is iconic to the Decay Theory project, standing in as a symbol for the patients at Vipeholm who could not orally consent to the treatments they were subjected to. 

Instagram: @littlewoodphotography

Additional Information

Caitlin E. Littlewood