Care Made Visible
On the 25th of August, the New York Times published an article by Leslie Jamison on joggers, rape, race, and “a summer of vulnerable and brutalized bodies.” Jamison describes her life as a jogger, an activity colored by the privilege that allows for voluntary physical exertion. She concedes that the murder of three joggers this summer, all of them white, female and in their 30’s, made her aware of the ways her body could be vulnerable. At the same time, the ongoing murder of black men by the police in the same summer made her think of the many ways in which her body wasn’t vulnerable at all. She wrote, “In the American imagination, some bodies need to be protected, while others need to be protected from. But to have your body understood as vulnerable is a privilege that should be a right.”
This was a year filled with violence. Repeated police killings have shaken up our sense of safety and justice. Terrorist attacks, real or imagined, have affected those who fell victim to it and those who now have to live under suspicion for crimes they haven’t committed. Other forms of violence have exposed the limits of our empathy. An explosion in New York City that caused twenty-nine injuries aroused more attention than an civil war in a less relatable part of the world that has displaced millions. In an age in which to be cared for is still a privilege rather than a right, the question of how we can care for another has become a rightfully popular topic in some New York art institutions.
In the year that has passed, several shows taken wellbeing, the pursuit and denial of it, as both its subject and function. A February show in Brooklyn’s Signal gallery featured a sauna as its centerpiece, to supply the visitors some warmth on a winter’s day. This summer, Simone Leigh’s “The Waiting Room” not only contained an apothecary, but also introduced sessions with herbalists, acupuncturists, and masseurs into the New Museum. At The 8th Floor, a recent show titled “In The Power Of Your Care” showed the many ways in which we don’t care at all. In one example, artist Jordan Eagles projected blood cells of gay, bisexual and queer men onto the wall. The Food and Drugs Administration’s lifetime ban on gay men to donate blood had only been lifted last year, but men who have sex with men can still only donate if they have been celibate for a year prior. These shows vary wildly in strategy and focus, though one common question unites them: how can care be made visible?
Simone Leigh’s exhibition at the New Museum starts off from another instance of pain left unseen. In 2008, the forty-nine year old Esmin Green died in the waiting room of Kings County Hospital Center in New York after having waited 24 hours to see a doctor. Blood clots that had moved from her legs to her lungs made her collapse onto the floor, where she laid for more than an hour while employees stood by and gasped at her lifeless body. The American health-care system is another instance in which pains aren’t regarded evenly – its structural blind eye towards people of color, especially women of color, has necessitated a long history of self-care and survival tactics outside hospital walls.
On the fifth floor of the New Museum, “The Waiting Room” includes a video projection on the wall that can be viewed from meditation cushions that are laid out in a grid. The video shows a woman’s head and a clay urn rotating around and around. Leigh explained that almost all pots are made by women, but never authored as such, not unlike the anonymous work of nurses or home-makers. Sandbags line the space, as if to provide shelter. The apothecary on the other side is lined with jars of herbs Leigh has collected from Chinatown to South-Africa. A teen fellow sits at the table to explain the herbs to visitors – to transform them to from simple leaves to versatile medicine – but most of the exhibition takes place beyond what is installed on the gallery floor. A series of ‘care sessions’ are dotted throughout the duration of the exhibition, and the ongoing program ranges from herbalism courses to lectures on abortion and toxicity. The sessions are free for all, and only require one to sign up at the start of the day. This format is based on Leigh’s previous project, the “Free People’s Medical Clinic” at Stuyvesant House, the former home of the first black female doctor in New York State.
However, there is a difference between setting up a free clinic in a Bedford-Stuyvesant townhouse and in one of New York’s biggest museums in downtown Manhattan, especially at a time when the boundary is blurring between autonomous forms of self-care and the profitable wellness industry. For the program, Leigh brings together a group of practitioners, often long-time friends and collaborators, into the spotlight of the museum. Outside the view of the audience, she also initiated a series of underground classes for community partners that work with young black women and LGBTQ youth. Yet, this show about unwitnessed pain and unseen work also made me wonder, who is invited to the museum to witness this care? When I attended one of the Afro-centering sessions, confused museum-visitors stared at us while we danced a choreography to Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother”. I saw them thinking, is this art?
In “The Waiting Room”, the art lies not in the dance classes – performance art is not its hidden agenda – nor does it only lie with her videos and installations. What Simone Leigh makes visible is the modes of care that have remained out the sight-lines of institutions like museums. The sandbags that line the exhibition refer to the ones the Black Panthers used to barricade their Free People’s Medical Clinic from police embattlement. Black Panthers used acupuncture as a way to provide accessible healthcare to underserved communities, and in the popular discourse of alternative medicine, it is little known that the Black Panthers were one of the first to open a school of acupuncture in New York. The show’s art does not simply lie in effecting change in specific communities, nor does it only lie in making hidden histories understood by those who have denied them. Instead, its art lies in how Leigh demonstrates that it is impossible to care when certain pains are rendered invisible. In this way, caring about someone is the precondition of caring for someone.
Leslie Jamison is no stranger to writing about how we relate to each other’s pain. In the title essay of her celebrated collection, “The Empathy Exams,” she describes how she once worked as a medical actor, enacting other people’s pain for medical students to figure out. One day she’d have to play Appendicitis Angela, the other day she plays a patient whose grief over her brother’s death has caused uncontrollable seizures. After each session, Jamison would have to grade each of the medical students according to a checklist, to evaluate whether they had understood enough of the patient and her illness. Through that process, it becomes clear that expressing empathy is an art in itself. Most important was number 31 on the checklist, which said ‘Voiced empathy for my situation/problem.’
Jamison writes, “We are instructed about the importance of this first word, voiced. It’s not enough for someone to have a sympathetic manner or use a caring tone of voice. The students have to say the right words to get credit for compassion.”
“In The Power of Your Care” at The 8th Floor Gallery, which also features Simone Leigh’s “Free People’s Medical Clinic,” felt like a medical re-enactment, a training in empathy. Many works made visible what people in the land of the healthy often forget: the pill containers that pile up, the painful communication of a man suffering from PTSD. Hunter Reynold’s video contains hypnotic displays of pills, while we hear a woman remind him lovingly to take his medicine. “Take care of yourself, honey,” she says, as if assuming he won’t. The exhibition addresses our many failures to care, and the title provokes the question: do you care enough?
Jody Wood’s “Beauty in Transition” shows photos of homeless women that received a make-over in the artist’s mobile beauty salon, while a room by caraballo-farman reconstructs the texture of a hospital. Hospital blankets hang on the walls, the repetitive clicking of a mouse reverberates through the space, we hear the voice of a nurse, the noise of an MRI machine. caraballo 3D-printed the tumors of her breast cancer into two sconces that light up the room, materializing what previously remained under her skin. I can’t help but to be reminded of Jamison’s encounter with a few eager medical students who refused to accept her aversion of eye-contact, as her script prescribed her to do.
She writes, “Wrestling me into eye contact is the way they maintain power – forcing me to acknowledge their requisite display of care.”
At Signal gallery, “Watermark” featured a sauna in the middle of the space. The structure was the result of months of experimentation by gallery co-owner Alexander Johns and The Perfect Nothing Catalog founder Frank Traynor. The sauna looked like a scrap-metal igloo, and was accompanied by slippers, bottles of water, towels, and daybeds. The gallery needed a heating element in the midst of February, but the sauna also makes the processes in the other works tangible.
Hayden Dunham’s installation stems from a research trip to Svartsengi, the Icelandic geo-thermal power plant that heats 21,000 households and the country’s most famous hot spring, the Blue Lagoon. It echoes the work she showed at “BIO:DIP”, which opened at Red Bull Studios in April this year. Taking the research she gathered at energy-generating sites in China to Texas, Dunham built sculptures that start off as frozen forms, move through various stages of ice, condense, evaporate into the air, travel through the building’s ventilation system, and is inhaled by the visitor. Florian Meisenberg mounted a landscape on a metal board. Streams of water fall down on the image, which the artist hopes will slowly wash away over time. The sauna isn’t just supposed to make the visitors feel better. It’s a physical experience that manifests the invisible processes we live between.
The second part of Jamison’s essay narrates the time she had an abortion and heart surgery with just a few weeks apart. She describes the “double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt”: she desired for her partner to share the experience with her, while she also wanted to keep it to herself. Jamison is relieved when her body finally starts to hurt Perhaps pain is more readily understood when it’s visible, and empathy easier to provoke when there’s a checklist that can be walked through.
This essay is written the day after someone dumped a home-made bomb in a dumpster in downtown New York. The explosion caused shards to cuts into twenty-nine bodies, including that of an eight year old boy. He was sitting in the back of a car when the windows were blasted by the explosive made of a filled pressure cooker, flip phone and christmas lights. I have received numerous messages from dear friends enquiring about my well-being. Yet, their empathy is one that I can only refract. Selflessly, or perhaps more selfishly, it makes me wonder about every time an explosion in Cairo, Istanbul, or Bagdad went unnoticed by our eyes.
This year has repeatedly demonstrated that some pains are more visible than others. Certain pains are lucrative because they are relatable, and it’s easy to care about things readily understood. Others, the invisible, the black, the colored, and the ones far away, are hard to see, hard to mind.
Jamison writes, “Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must be hard, it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.”
These exhibitions in the first part of the year weren’t necessarily built to save lives. They’re taking on the same challenge as Leslie Jamison in “The Empathy Exams”: they’re trying to make us see that even pain that isn’t understood should be cared for.
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