Annie Heckman and Lauren Kalman’s exhibitions at the International Museum of Surgical Science serve as places for contemplating deeper issues about how we understand and misconstrue, or celebrate and revile the body in life and death. You thought that you were alone but I caught your bullet just in time, for Heckman, serves as a personal response to the death of her brother a few years back. Her analytical nature compels her to scrutinize, examine, and critique. For Heckman, writing this elegy as an impossible wish filled with super heroism, magic and wonder offered her solace and logic in a moment that lacked all of it. Lately, she has been thinking about how cultures perform the process of mourning. She has considered how the acts and physical processes we perform when someone dies have changed. In the past, the grieving prepared and buried the body on their own; today, we are almost completely removed from the process. Heckman realized that in order to begin her healing process, she needed creative space to express the desire of not wanting her brother to die.
Much of Heckman’s work deals with love and death, and she positions her work as experiential on multiple sensory levels by consciously providing the viewer a place to sit, a place to play, something to touch, or feel in the installations. You thought that you were alone…provides an added layer by encouraging and tempting the viewer to play. Heckman’s house of cards is constructed from hand drawn human, cat, dog, and bird bones; laser cut, and coated with phosphorescent paint. She began this project when she was invited to be in a group show with the theme of constructing objects that would eventually decay. It was then that she decided to give serious thought to building a giant house of cards, and this show seemed like an appropriate way to actualize these things in her head.
Her logical tendencies are apparent throughout the installation. Some structures are modular and symmetrical, while in others; bones lie in piles and appear to be strewn about. There are pathways for movement and places for the eye to rest. Her decision to allow viewers to see the string from which the chandeliers hang, or the cords for the black lights and spots give a sense of order and meaning to the magic that happens when the lights cycle off and one is left in the dark to experience her ornate structures, beautiful and macabre all at once.
Lauren Kalman’s work focuses on our sick bodies, in some ways to confront us in our discomfort with illness. She is interested in the ways that visual images of the body – whether in advertising, pornography, anthropology, or medicine – always seem to project subtle messages about the type of body we should consider ideal. The root of her practice resides in her training as a metalsmith, and jewelry and adornments always seem to find themselves reigning supreme in her artistic investigations. She is interested in methods of adornment, their relationship to consumer culture and the accumulation of things as symbols of wealth or prosperity. Blooms, Efflorescence, and Other Dermatological Embellishments explores how and why we spend so much time trying to mask our imperfections and distract others from our weaknesses. Kalman asks us to consider the subtle and subversive nature of these practices by transforming skin lesions, sores, and maladies into jeweled adornments.
Her interest in the connections between the Protestant work ethic and Weber’s idea of capitalism has informed this series greatly. In both of these philosophies, wealth is associated with good moral character, hard work, and consequently, the rejection of leisure. Eventually, these concepts became secularized and good moral character became associated with the gross accumulation of objects, meaning that if one works hard enough, one will be prosperous as evidenced by the things one has is able to get.
Throughout much of this work, the viewer can see the references to medical journals and anthropological documentation. By staging the photos in the style of medical documentation, Kalman wants the viewer to ask why those photos show the subject’s exposed nipple in the cropping when it appears to be documenting a physical malady on the back and arms, for example. By using her own young, white, healthy body as the site that represents the physical manifestations of herpes, syphilis, cystic acne and other illnesses usually associated with bodies infected with HIV/AIDS, Kalman asks us to question why most of the subjects featured in this type of documentation are people of color, queer, or non-western. The intent, however, was not to show solidarity, as if one can compare the pain and discomfort Kalman endured in order to simulate the appearance of these infections to the emotional pain that “exotic others” may feel from being fetishized, or that those with these illnesses actually feel. She wanted, instead, to raise larger questions about the ways in which we apologize for our bodies in our quest to romanticize and idealize through distractions around our imperfections. Perhaps like Heckman, Kalman seeks to fulfill an impossible wish, one in which we are constantly trying to delay the inevitable.