How do we care? What are the societal conditions that produce the need for care? How do we talk about disability? How do we make visible those forms of care necessary to make life bearable for all, and how then do we elicit empathy and better care? These are some of the questions curator Sara Reisman poses in the exhibition In the Power of Your Care. Using all manner of media, artists share their personal stories in works such as Pepe Espaliu’s sculpture “El Nido (The Nest)” (1993), a symbolic piece about AIDS support networks; Frank Moore‘s painting “Arena” (1992), which confronts the bureaucracy of the health system; Sunaura Taylor‘s “In-tersex” (2011), a digital print on paper about the struggles that occur at the intersection of gender identity, discrimination, and disability; Hunter Reynolds‘s “Medi-cation Reminder” (2015), a sound and video installation about the intimacy of caregiving; and Mladen Miljanovic‘s “Show Where it Hurts With Your Hand” (2012), a digital projection of photographs dealing with trauma. The show details how artists have and continue to find alternative ways to sustain, improve, and repair each other and society.
Harking back to caraballo-farman, several photographic series in the show reflect feminism’s enduring battle against expectations of beauty, in particular how women have taken control of their bodies as they battle disease. Draped only in a sheet gathered around her breasts and fastened with diaper pins, the late Jo Spence rejects the possibility of being defined or consumed by her cancer. The “X” mark above her left breast signals an impending mastectomy. Spence’s portrait resonates with two triptychs by Hannah Wilke: “Truth of Consequences” (1991), one of her “performalist self-portraits,” and “Untitled” (1992), which chronicles Wilke’s transformation after undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma. Both pieces feature the artist’s head in profile, face-on, and from behind, suggesting a mug shot as well as a performance of defiance. Nearby, Wilke’s “Why Not Sneeze” (1992) connects her personal journey with the medical industry that has shaped it. A readymade birdcage filled with medical paraphernalia, including empty bottles and syringes, transmits the weight of her illness through metaphor — the body is caged and under the control of the industry, unable to escape. Both Wilke and Spence resist expectations of beauty by performing how they really are — diseased bodies and all — and not an expectation of how they should look.
Jody Wood’s photographic series refocuses this theme of care and appearance in her project Beauty in Transition (2014), documented in a video that shows her driving a mobile salon around New York City, offering free styling and beauty services to homeless women. While basic necessities and structural support are the most important needs for the homeless, self-care is also a part of their identity and well-being. Large-scale portraits reveal Wood’s clients after they’ve been through her salon. In a way, the joy these women project affirms how beautifying is a form of care, but it also demonstrates how touch and intimacy are missing for so many, while being critical to self-representation and agency. But Wood’s work doesn’t address the structural issues that perpetuate homelessness, and I wonder if or how these small interventions can push beyond the need for self-care to a directive for community care.
In the Power of Your Care attempts to cover a great deal of ground in a very small space, which doesn’t serve the intensity of the narrative. I wanted each work to have more room to speak, to move me the way “Contemplation Source Room” did. Many works competed for my attention and I sometimes lost the thread that tied them together. There are so many stories, so many tragedies, reinforced by looming questions about health care, its costs, and how we can have societal accountability. As a whole, it can be nearly incomprehensible, but ultimately the experiences in this exhibition are personal ones: stories that affirm how we have and continue to care for one another, that the body is truly a site of interdependence. Exiting through the foyer, we see Papalia’s piece once again, and it seems more optimistic this time, as two children eventually come to his aid — the power of your care on full display.
In the Power of Your Care continues at the 8th Floor (17 West 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 12.