Something’s missing

February 17, 2009

Barring Hannah Wilke, Jo Spence and AIDS/activist art, I’m coming up dry when trying to think of contemporary art that deals with illness.  I’m thinking especially of mental illness and developmental disability, here, but also chronic phsyical illness.

There’s certainly no dearth of writing about illness and the accompanying Puritanical stigma–I just finished a memior on bipolar disorder today–but this stuff seems completely absent from the visual arts.  And most film I can think of (i.e. Rain Man) is just pure exploitation.

I can’t come up with any particular reasons why other than the body/mind horror most folks I know (me included) are engaged in: we just can’t bear to look at the institutionalized devastation of chronic illness, and when we do, the focus is always “oh how can the evil victim’s family cope with this horrible burden.”  Another reason has to do with the way the issue may flatten out, visually, into documentary that shuns the creative intervention of art.  Reason number three is that art produced by people with health issues is usually devalued as outsider/naive art or art therapy and is therefore outside the scope of the sheen of academia the art world likes to be able to apply to what it’s selling.

I’ve tried to address these issues visually before and come up with nothing but pictures of pill bottles or photocopies of treatment notes or insurance claims: the ephemera of illness.   None of this stuff has worked out ot my satisfaction.  I’ve also tried taking pictures of doctors, but they all came out blurry ’cause I hate doctors so much.   There has to be a way to address this stuff, though.  Short of doing a performance where I rent a booth and set up an “Ask an Autistic” sign, though, I don’t know what.  There’s something about illness that says ‘relational aesthetics’ to me but that’s a whole ‘nother whole can of worms.  It also says Identity Politics to me, but what we need more of is Identity Politics.

This has been on my mind lately and keeping me away from blogging both because of some nasty workplace treatment because of my health problems (if I don’t get all better magically I’ll get fired) and a wisdom tooth issue that means shooting pain up and down the right side of my face that I’m reluctant to do anything about because of my abject fear of surgery.

Any ideas or responses to this?  Or can you think of other artists to look at I’ve missed?


4 Responses to “Something’s missing”

  1. AdamFeldmeth Says:

    Part of the contemporary taboo over mental illness and its representation stems back to its presentation being objectifying, e.g. Dubuffet, and thusly so old man modern. I recall “A Beautiful Mind”, the movie, being praised when it came out for providing a “near accurate” account of John Nash’s type of illness. Come on; Ed Harris as a specter unto my conscious? The bio-novel on which the film is loosely, loosely based has none of the specters as characters. It may just be the Ron Howard-i-ness of it all, but the character Russell Crow plays is so Disney Adult, and we are all aware of how the historians over at Disney fight for accurate portrayal of their subjects.

    A photo essay, ‘Library of Dust’, by David Maisel however, may strike on the very things you’re talking about:,0,4323203.story

    It is a little pill bottle-esque, but it pushes on the political as to just how much this segment of our population was left to rot, not only by us at large, but by the patients’ kin as well, who are themselves long gone.

    The fact that it was the same institution that house the set for ‘One Flew Over..’ is a quaint piece of journalism, yet thinking about both the novel and the movie in relation to semi-recent representations works on a higher level of example. I figure primarily because the characters are humanized and shown as individual personalities, instead of vegetables or loons, and the McMurphy character’s position is to thwart the old establishment and bring an urgency of life back into the place. Kind of an institutional critique-y narrative.

    I think you strike two points. One, there are not many examples of representation dealing with illness, in general, period. And two, there are not many examples of representation which portray mental illness effectively and viably.

    “…art produced by people with health issues is usually devalued as outsider/naive art or art therapy…” To a large extent, yes. But look at the allure of Van Gogh, or Basquiat. I think art history has a tendency to subjugate illness (mental and other) as reasonable ground on which to evaluate an artist’s oeuvre posthumously. As if historians are standing around a table saying to each other, “What areas in the practice can we attribute to his illness?”–As if it were a tax write off!

    Contemporary representations often seem to take the route of suggesting and quoting from established (“safe”) modernist examples such as Louis Wain, so as to have some legitimized preexisting research and study to back up the artistic presentation.

    I leave you for now with this:

  2. Here’s what comes to mind:

    Amanda Baggs on autism:

    There are parts of her work I like and parts I don’t, which happens when you’re dealing with someone else’s condition.

    Bob Flanagan’s Pain Journal:
    Some BF visual stuff:
    He did a great proto-relational aesthetics piece at SMMoA where he was installed on his hospital bed in the gallery, hooked to oxygen and an IV. Periodically he would be raised in the air by a rope tied around his balls. His wife was both his nurse-caretaker and his dominatrix, so the work presented an alternate way of working through pain before he died a few months later.

    Derek Jarman’s Blue:
    I like DJ’s piece because it deals with the disease (CMV) rather than the AIDS activist stuff (which I think you’re less interested in). I saw it at MOCA’s art and film exhibition. It’s available on Netflix or you can Google Torrent Derek Jarman Blue and download it to your ‘puter.

    I love Goya, and loved seeing this work at the Frick. There’s an inscription to the doctor at the bottom, thanking him for his care. Considering that there was little in the way of treatment in 1820, the relationship was more about palliative care than cure. I’m all for making people better, but too often modern medicine treats the patient like an inert host.
    Francisco de Goya’s Self-Portrai Arrieta

    Sophie Calle had a piece in the Venice Biennale (not the one in the French pavilion). About the time she was invited, she found out her mother had a terminal illness and would die before the show. “Pas Pu Saisir la Mort” by Sophie Calle includes a text of the back story, a painting done of her mother from the 50’s and a video of her on her death bed:

    Looking back over the work that came to mind, it seems to be about the relationship between the afflicted and the people around them, which might have some parallels in the artist viewer relationship. I don’t want to get into too much self disclosure here, but it’s negotiating the gulf between the two individuals that is most interesting to me.

  3. rebecca Says:

    What about Tee Corinne’s work around her and her lover’s death from cancer? It’s called Scars, Stoma, Ostomy Bag, Portocath. I think you can find it and her essay about it online. She died in 2006. It’s an interesting meditation on the body during the transitional periods of illness. This is more for your interest in chronic illness than developmental disabilites/mental health . . . just two cents!

  4. Nicholas Says:

    Thanks folks for your recommendations. I am still not convinced that mental health issues can be presented without fetishizing them or flattening them out, but that’s a task to take up as an artist.

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