BY Alice Bucknell in Reviews | 17 MAY 21
Featured in
Issue 220

Pakui Hardware’s Vision of Post-Pandemic Healthcare

At Baltic Centre, Gateshead, the Lithuanian artist duo open their first UK institutional solo with a quasi-operating room featuring a giant mechanical doctor

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BY Alice Bucknell in Reviews | 17 MAY 21

Many of our ideas about medical technology assume it to be ‘cold, rational and functional, whereas human care is affective and comforting’, suggests medical anthropologist Jeannette Pols in Care at a Distance: On the Closeness of Technology (2012). We know that feeling – or at least we used to – of the ice-cold stethoscope placed against the chest, contrasting the warm breath of the doctor above. The intimacy of care has become an unfamiliar notion in lockdown, with technology no longer the awkward third wheel between practitioner and patient. Lithuanian artist duo Pakui Hardware (Neringa Cerniauskaite and Ugnius Gelguda) open their first UK institutional solo exhibition with a prescient vision of post-pandemic healthcare. ‘We started working on the show before COVID-19,’ Cerniauskaite explained to me. ‘The work came out of our long-term research on the future digitization of care, but life caught up with art in a funny way.’

pakui hardware virtual care
Pakui Hardware, 'Virtual Care', 2021, installation view, commissioned by BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Courtesy: the artists and carlier|gebauer, Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Rob Harris 

Pakui Hardware’s intervention, ‘Virtual Care’ (2021), is pared back and clinical. Designed in collaboration with Lithuanian architecture studio Isora x Lozuraityte, this seven-and-a-half-metre-tall, shrine-like space, fitted with oversized light panels and mismatched LEDs, evokes a dated surgery. Slate-grey vinyl flooring swallows all sounds of life while the luminescent exterior paint echoes the precise blue-grey of a N95 face mask. In the centre of the room, a giant mechanical general practitioner (GP) dangles from the ceiling. Three spidery arms in transparent latex oversleeves extend from its stainless-steel plated belly. Metal mitts clasp onto supersized glass lenses, burning fiery shades of yellow and red, with three polished-metal talons holding the wonky glasswork in place. Looming over the scene, the GP’s glass eyes are surveilling yet tender. All metal brawn and sheen, the machine flexes a hi-tech muscularity, but it is equally gossamer and vulnerable, swaying with the slightest movement of bodies in the room.

Three weighted cylinders root the GP in place, with black cables running amok from its central base, each connected to one of four operating tables. These lumpy tabletops, propped up with steel legs, emanate a hazy, jellyfish-like underglow. Beige and charcoal semi-transparent fabrics, caught somewhere between a dress skirt and a melodramatic memorial sleeve, are thrown over the misshapen surfaces; periodic waves of stale air from the museum’s ventilation system sends their frills aflutter. Duck beneath each operating table and you’ll find a peculiar, spongy spine suspended above and buzzing neon LED tubes below. Made from milky-white silicone with chia seeds peppered throughout, the spines have cast spiked ribs, which end in pearly rubber driblets that appear to have crystallized mid-air. A perpetual face-off between order and chaos, sterility and explosive life plays out in this quasi-operating room, with the ambiguity between organic and artificial materials further complicating our relationship with these alien lifeforms. And it’s about to get weirder.

pakui hardware virtual care
Pakui Hardware, 'Virtual Care', 2021, installation detail, commissioned by BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Courtesy: the artists and carlier|gebauer, Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Rob Harris 

Shielding each of the operating tables like glossy exoskeletons are thermo-vacuumed plastic shells, made from a polyester film often referred to as PET. Their gross lumpen surfaces form a landscape that feels oddly familiar. Loosely abstracted from 3D scans of human organs, the shells are lined with silicone and soil, tossed into synthetic rubber and hardened to create sweeping landscapes through their textures – cosmic black explosions that sit atop the frilly fabric. Resting on the PET tabletops are other anthropomorphic aberrations: glass-blown organs, both clear and orange-red. Collapsed sideways in the dented middle section of each plastic field, these puffy, fleshy forms slot perfectly into the topography – a loving embrace that makes it unclear who was made for whom. They dangle, untethered, over the table’s jagged precipice. With hollow gashes cut on either end, the organs look like replacement stomachs waiting to be slotted into their next human user as much as they do glossy incubators for some other life form entirely. The mechanical doctor hovers above them all, its three shamanic glass eyes – or artisanal surgical lights – suspended in a tangle of contradictions.

Since 2018, Pakui Hardware have worked with blown glass in a mixed-media practice determined to muddy the waters of what Pols terms ‘warm hands, cold technology’ – or the ideological binary Western society has cemented between the hardware of care and its human operators. In a fray of hyper-artificial and medically signifying materials – polyurethane, PET plastic, silicone and stainless steel – glass, a fundamentally natural solid made from raw liquid sand, is the ultimate alchemic deviant: clean or dirty, hard or soft, medical or creative, sharp or fragile, industrial or handmade.

pakui hardware virtual care
Pakui Hardware, 'Virtual Care', 2021, installation detail, commissioned by BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Courtesy: the artists and carlier|gebauer, Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Rob Harris 

Pols criticizes common interpretations of medicine as a separate discipline removed from our own bodily knowledge; she rails against the idea that medical technology wedges itself between us and the world, precluding our experience of it. This techno-pessimistic view not only discredits both the accessibility of virtual care and the potential tenderness of mechanical touch, it also denies the exclusionary violence of human-run, increasingly private, national healthcare systems. ‘Before the pandemic, digital healthcare technologies had a distinctly neoliberal undertone: it was another form of self-control through self-monitoring,’ explains Cerniauskaite. ‘Virtual Care’ hones in on the complexity and contradiction of digital and robotic care in an age of pandemics, but ultimately suggests that machines can have a loving touch, when technology becomes the bridge, not a barrier.

'Pakui Hardware: Virtual Care' is on view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, until 3 October 2021.

Pakui Hardware, 'Virtual Care', 2021, installation detail, commissioned by BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Courtesy: the artists and carlier|gebauer, Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Rob Harris 

Alice Bucknell is an artist and writer based in London, UK. Her work has been shown at KÖNIG GALERIE at Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria, the B3 Biennial, and Annka Kultys Gallery in London, and will be presented at RIXC in Riga in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut’s AI Residency in September 2021. She is currently a staff writer at Elephant and Harvard Design Magazine, and has contributed to publications including Architectural Review, Flash Art and Kaleidoscope.

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