‘The Bodywork of Hospitality’ Sees Communal Care as a Civic Obligation

A group show curated by Sylvie Fortin at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, delves into the politics of social health

BY Travis Diehl in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 28 FEB 22

Sylvie Fortin began curating ‘I Don’t Know You Like That: The Bodywork of Hospitality’ in 2019. Yet, while the show doesn’t directly address the COVID-19 pandemic, its themes of cellular care and social health meld effortlessly with the ongoing crisis. Take Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s video T3511 (2018), in which the artist/narrator orders a saliva sample from an online supplier, then has the donor’s DNA sequenced with a mail-in kit, and begins a creepy kind of romance with the man she discovers behind the spit. The piece can’t help but recall the many swabs and fluids of COVID-19 testing, but also charts the confluence of privacy, internet stalking and our constant volunteering of biometric signatures that predates the pandemic. DNCB (2021), an installation by Oliver Husain and Kerstin Schroedinger, includes accounts from men who turned to the titular photosensitive chemical as a desperate HIV/AIDS treatment at a time when the US decided to refuse to release treatment for the virus. The piece implicates a certain desperate formalism, too: an escape into colour and form. The oral history underlies the vivid, visual exotica of blacklit skin, makeup and bubbling fluids. There is nothing fantastic here; the world really is this weird.

Jenna Sutela, Holobiont, 2018
Jenna Sutela, Holobiont, 2018, single-channel video installation with sound, installation dimensions variable. Courtesy: © the artist and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts; photograph: Colin Conces

The show uses the term ‘hospitality’ to mean a deeper, wider form of care: a social custom and a generosity extended to other people on a cultural basis that goes beyond individual friendships or favouritism. Hospitality is a kind of obligation – one that the US has frequently abandoned. Here, too, the show goes beyond facile comparisons between COVID-19 and AIDS, implicating the healthcare system and medical science in the sort of racist exploitation of minorities that, to this day, have resulted in vaccine hesitancy in Black populations. A pair of sculptures by Crystal Z. Campbell, Portrait of a Woman I and II (both 2013), display 3D laser-cut images of HeLa cells, the first immortal lab-cultured human cell line, in wooden towers – returning the question of hospitality to the ethics, medical and otherwise, of the infamous cell line propagated from Henrietta Lacks without her permission or benefit. In the adjacent gallery, a selection of text-based works by Rodney McMillian brings the point home. President Bill Clinton, May 16, 1997 Apology for Study Done in Tuskeegee (US Public Health Service Syphillis Study at Tuskeegee) [sic] (2020) reprints an excerpt of Clinton’s speech expressing, in short: ‘I am sorry that your government orchestrated a study so clearly racist.’ The man in the White House would refold these victims into the national body, extending the idea of hospitality to the concept of a state. Another McMillian work, Between the Sun and the Moon (For H. A. Washington) (2020), lists other racist medical experiments, at least one of which – Detroit ER patients receiving an experimental transfusion without their knowledge – happened in the 2000s.

Francis Upritchard, Vivian, 2017
Francis Upritchard, Vivian, 2017, steel and foil armature, paint, modelling material and fabric, 51 × 99 × 26 cm. Courtesy: © the artist, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and Anton Kern Gallery, New York; photograph: Colin Conces

McMillian’s work, like others mentioned so far, binds the show to political reality. Around this scaffolding are more or less whimsical projects, concerned with similar themes, but that – except for Fortin’s tight curation – might drift into abstraction. See the hallway painstakingly hung with dyed/painted fabric and furnished with anatomically shaped pillows, La lengua de los distraídos (2021) by Celina Eceiza; or Francis Upritchard’s statuettes of gothic harlequins, such as Vivian (2017); or Bridget Moser’s millennial pink video installation in which the artist mimes auto-evisceration with an apron covered in plush organs (When I Am Through with You, There Won’t Be Anything Left, 2021). In the context of ‘hospitality’, these less didactic elements of the show operate like the acidic, vomitous pours of acrylic paint that frame McMillian’s texts, pitting aesthetic pleasure against corporeal pain – a pleasure that, among such rolling atrocities, seems like the least we can do.

Bridget Moser, When I Am Through With You There Wont Be Anything Left, 2021
Bridget Moser, When I Am Through With You There Won’t Be Anything Left, 2021, multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © the artist and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts; photograph: Colin Conces

‘I Don’t Know You Like That: The Bodywork of Hospitality’ is on view at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts until 20 March 2022

Main image: Celina Eceiza, La lengua de los distraídos (The Distracted Language, 2021), site-sensitive installation: chalk on canvas, hand-dyed fabric, felt carpet and soft sculptures, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © the artist and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts; photograph: Colin Conces

Travis Diehl is online editor at X-TRA. He is a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.