A Different Kind of Healing
Ex voto-like works by Jesse Darling, Julia Philips, Diamond Stingily and the late Donald Rodney imagine a world ordered differently
Ex voto-like works by Jesse Darling, Julia Philips, Diamond Stingily and the late Donald Rodney imagine a world ordered differently
The German artist Peter Dreher, who died earlier this year at the age of 87, painted the same glass of water over and over. Beginning in 1974, he rendered the glass more than 5,000 times (‘Day by Day, Good Day’, 1974–2020). Dreher believed that returning to the same subject allowed him a new vantage point each time. In a 2017 interview with Studio International, he described himself as ‘a happy Sisyphus’: ‘because I succeed in seeing my subject (the glass) afresh each time – as if I were seeing it for the first time’. The glass-as-subject to which I find myself repeatedly drawn is the body in pain; I gravitate towards artists and writers – from Frida Kahlo to Lucy Grealy – who took this as their subject.
This piece was originally commissioned with a specific group of young practitioners in mind. But, following the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police in May, I kept circling back to one artist in particular, whose work felt newly resonant amidst the ensuing urgent calls for racial justice. British artist Donald Rodney was born in Birmingham in 1961 and he was just 36 years old when he died from sickle cell anaemia in 1998. He centred his illness in what he created, while exploring racism, bodily autonomy and inequality. Psalms (1997) consists of a motorized wheelchair to which Rodney added a neural computer. It moved around the gallery, a kinetic mapping device made up of sensors and a camera. Visitors could ignore or engage with the chair as it circled the space in sequences, and the camera operated as both Rodney’s eyes and his presence in the gallery. The chair refutes the gaze of strangers who stare at disabled or non-conforming bodies; it is also a stand-in for a body of colour in the overwhelmingly white space of the art institution. Psalms was originally shown as the centrepiece of Rodney’s exhibition ‘9 Night in Eldorado’ at the South London Gallery, which took place in 1997, the year before his death. Rodney was too ill to attend. The chair is an ex voto: a stand-in for the artist, making both him and his illness visible, while critiquing the invisibility of Black and disabled artists within mainstream artistic culture.
In the House of My Father (1996–97) is a close-up photograph of Rodney’s palm, holding a small house: a symbol of security and belonging. Closer inspection reveals that the structure is made from the artist’s own skin, which was removed during his treatment for sickle cell anaemia, a disease that disproportionately affects people of colour. It’s a powerful image, encapsulating the politics of illness and inequality. ‘Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects,’ wrote Walter Benjamin in his 1931 essay ‘Unpacking My Library’; never is that more
evident than in being the owner of a sick body.
Ex votos were objects originally offered to a saint in return for protection from illness or death. In South America, they were usually paintings of the peril from which a penitent wished to be saved. But they are not just depictions of distress: each one is a repository of future hopes, of a different set of possibilities. As a teenager, I developed an orthopaedic illness that led to years of immobility and surgery. There was one spell of 18 long months on crutches, during which time my school organized a trip to the French pilgrimage site of Lourdes. There was a raffle for places, such was the demand, but I was given priority because my illness offered the possibility of a miracle. I was, in a way, my own ex voto. I believed. I thought I would be cured. At a candlelit procession, psalms were sung – the sacred songs invoked by Rodney in his installation – and, at the Grotto of Our Lady, I saw medical supports hanging as offerings or as proof of miracles. The accessories of illness as externalized cure: a prosthesis as prayer, a cane as a stand-in for disability.
Years later, when I first encountered Jesse Darling’s sculptures, I was struck by how they transformed these objects, reclaiming and reinventing them. Collapsed Cane (2017) is a hospital-issue, metal walking aid distorted out of shape, unusable. The curve resembles a pelvis, mirroring the bone it is meant to support. It was shown as part of Darling’s Tate Britain show, ‘The Ballad of Saint Jerome’ (2018–19), which drew on the fable of the lion who had a thorn removed from its paw by the titular saint. The duality at the heart of this is Christianity’s insistence on the redemptive power of healing, but also the power imbalance in being ill. The act of healing is often underpinned by a notion of value: who or what is worthy of cure? Epistemologies (shamed cabinet) (2018) resembles both a museum vitrine and a case for relics. The legs are warped and unsteady, implying a sense of brokenness, while the glass receptacle reinforces the sacredness of its contents, which resemble binders of medical notes. Every patient is familiar with having their history, their pain and their treatment collated in these corporate folders – reduced to a vocabulary and logic that is as powerful as it is inadequate. Darling looks at how ill or disabled bodies navigate the capitalist structures of hospitals and their hierarchies of knowledge.
In her 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness, the poet and essayist Anne Boyer writes: ‘Having a body in the world is not to have a body in truth: it’s to have a body in history.’ The historical body is utilitarian, erotic, aesthetic but also an intersection of gender, race, class, sexuality and ability. As with the lion, which represents the intrusion of the wild or exotic into the realm of Western Christianity, the othering of the patient is a consistent part of the medical narrative. A patient learns early on that absorbing pain is a means of martyrdom, inching them closer to a kind of religious ecstasy and the idea that there is meaning in suffering. In their 2018 ‘Support Level’ show at Chapter NY in New York, Darling explicitly investigates this, using eerie doppelgängers of medical supports. Comfort Station (2017) is a twisted commode that appears to drag itself towards the viewer while, in Cut Curtain (2017), a PVC curtain displays a gash, rupturing its intactness and underscoring the lack of privacy in hospital spaces. It reminds me of a line from Anne Carson’s book of poems The Beauty of the Husband (2001): ‘a wound gives off its own light’. The source of pain can turn into an articulation of it. The wound has a voice: it speaks and it tells its own metonymic story of embodiment – as do medical aids. By resisting the objects of support as signifiers of dependence, Darling destabilizes assumptions around what sick bodies are capable of.
I once spent nine weeks in a medical support: a hip spica plaster cast, which went from rib cage to toe tips. It was its own kind of sculpture, a fibreglass tomb. When the time came for it to be removed, a doctor did so with a cast saw. But something was wrong. Heat seared and I screamed. The doctor, however, insisted the tool could only rotate back and forth: there was no way for it to penetrate the skin. The next day, when the cast was finally removed under anaesthetic, six large gashes congregated on my legs. I still have the scars. I thought of that saw when looking at Julia Phillips’s Operator I (with Blinder, Muter, Penetrator, Aborter) (2017), glazed ceramic implements arranged on a metal surgical table. The objects look medical: a reminder of how tools used to heal and repair the body can, if misused or repurposed, become objects of torture and control, used to silence and maim. They acknowledge, too, how Western medicine has a history of its own kind of violence, across gender, race and class. It reinforces the concept that authoritative dismissal is another form of silencing. (‘Calm down, the saw isn’t cutting your skin.’)
Phillips’s work, like Darling’s, draws on the medico-mechanical. It accepts the necessity of medical supports, but is wary of their potential to harm, to hurt rather than to heal. Her surgical objects are an ex voto to ward off pain and to give back autonomy to the patient. Much of her work is life-cast from her own body. In Witness I–III (2019), for example, ceramic heads, shoulders and lungs hang as austere proxies. The pink lungs are threaded with blue capillaries and are uncomfortably lifelike. The viewer enters a room with a gravel floor, where microphones in each piece pick up on the inevitable underfoot crunch as well as other ambient noises and voices, which are played back – repeated or distorted by sound effects – through speakers. The lungs, discarnate in their suspension, will not be silenced. At the heart of Phillips’s work is the question of who has a voice, which often intersects with questions of class, race and gender.
Diamond Stingily has thought a lot about such issues. ‘Surveillance’, her 2017 show at Ramiken Crucible in Los Angeles, explored how observation can be used as a tool of systemic racism. Cameras scanned two of the gallery rooms, lit by imposing light towers with televisions displaying the footage. The cameras were omniscient, offering the insistent gaze of a panopticon: the watched did not know how frequently they were being viewed or when. The position of the lights was crucial – elevated, intimidating – and the objects they illuminated were Stingily’s Hergott Dolls (2017). Based on Amish folk objects, the dolls are constructed in dark materials, rough-edged, with arms splayed, their position Christ-like or, perhaps, invoking an act of surrender. In 2018, they lined the walls and floor of Freedman Fitzpatrick gallery in Paris for her show ‘For the People of [__________]’. In the press text for the exhibition, Stingily imagined them as belonging to the traditions of an unnamed people who ‘disbanded from colonized countries in the early 1800s[,] mostly of African, Asian and Indigenous descent’: who stepped out of the capitalist, imperialist world and formed a culture apart, where ‘very few non [__________] have visited’. From a certain angle, one doll looks hooded, crumpled in a heap with hands bound behind its back, an image redolent of police brutality. Anonymized bodies of colour, the dolls may symbolize the victims of racism or act as an ex voto of hope and supplication that another way is possible.
‘Surveillance’ also featured the work of Bri Williams, whose own dolls are more detailed: clothed, specifically positioned and with braided Afro-Caribbean hair. Initially playful, the childlike figure of School Mates (2017) lies on the floor, hands over its eyes, as if playing a game of hide and seek. Another doll stands in a corner shielding its face, attempting to resist surveillance, not wanting to be complicit in the voyeurism of others.
These dolls are a specific kind of doppelgänger: corporeal ex votos that ask for a collective form of healing. Viewed from the vantage point of this summer, as protests for racial justice roil the US and elsewhere, Stingily’s ideas around visibility take on renewed relevance. It was the hypervisibility of Black bodies in white spaces that led to the shooting of the unarmed Ahmaud Arbery while he was out jogging in a residential neighbourhood in Brunswick, Georgia, in February. But it is the ongoing presence of Black (as well as white) bodies in the streets, demanding change, that might lead to a more just society, in which people of all colours can thrive. In the bright, white, illuminated space of the gallery, Stingily’s dolls may seem small and powerless, but their presence attests to collective resilience and its possibilities. What’s at play here – as in the work of Darling, Phillips and Rodney – is a kind of visual parataxis: see us, include us, stand with us.
I keep returning to the articulation of pain – of how to put it on the page and how art can speak for the ‘misbehaving’ body (to borrow from the title of the Wellcome Collection’s 2019–20 exhibition of work by Oreet Ashery and Jo Spence). A couple of years after the Lourdes trip and the permanent leg scars from the saw, I discovered Kahlo’s work. She remains one of the most unflinching chroniclers of the body and injury, and of the injustices of othering – medical and otherwise. Kahlo collected hundreds of Mexican ex votos, painted on wood and metal, many of which still hang on the walls of her famous Blue House in Mexico City. She also painted her own – not to seek protection, but to document her suffering, while believing that healing could come from making the work. An ex voto is also an informal remaking of a scene, a kind of rearrangement. Never has the world felt more like it should tilt towards new structures and new ways to live.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 213 with the headline ‘No Miracle Cures’.
Main image: Donald Rodney, In the House of My Father, 1996–97, photograph, C-print on paper, mounted on aluminium, 12 × 15 cm. Courtesy: Estate of Donald Rodney