Desiring Bones

Lina Žigelytė (art critic)

 

As I enter the space, which is as big as a couple of rooms and has high-ceiling, its primary purpose is unclear. A bulky textbook on general nursing lies on the table and immediately catches my eye. Beside it, lies a book with a black cover and an enigmatic title Desmurgy written on it. Visually, this book from the Soviet era reminds me of the Catechism. Having opened it, I find out that desmurgy is a branch of surgery related to various bandage techniques. Around me, scattered in this small space, glimmer bright-coloured electrical tapes, scraps of colourful sticky paper and finishing materials. I see an A4 size X-ray image among a stack of paper sheets in one of the drawers (some sheets are blank, some look like sketches). It is an X-ray of a leg with bolts screwed into the thigh bone.

In Gabrielė Gervickaitė’s studio, which I describe here, it becomes obvious that the juxtaposition of objects from health and construction industries in her work is not arbitary. This juxtaposition already has become the signature of this artist, who graduated from the Vilnius Academy of Arts with an MA in painting in 2011. Her drawings, paintings, collages, sculptures, and installations are like construction sites and contain fiberglass mesh, used in masonry, and coloured electrical tape. Materials, familiar to an electrician or a plasterer, get in touch with materials from the operating room. In the sheets of paper, medical gauze and bandage are attached to the surface and thus something akin to wound dressing replaces the painterly gesture. As Gervickaitė formally intertwines health and construction industries, she demonstrates how these two spheres are similar - both involve building, destruction, ripping apart, molding, and repair. The difference is that construction sites are quite a frequent sight in our public spaces, while bodies stuck in the medical industrial complex still are usually understood as belonging only to medical institutions, doctors, and a narrow circle of relatives who know about the illness. Gervickaitė reacts to this tendency by searching how to displace and make public the body that undergoes medical treatment.

This strategy dominates the artist’s early works. In her 2011 solo exhibition Technobodies at the Akademija gallery in Vilnius, Gervickaitė used drawings, collages, and a sterile hospital sheet, which she affixed to the wall, to transfer bandaged limbs, X-ray aestetics, and a leg framed in the Ilizarov apparatus (so far the most recurrent motif in her work) to the gallery space. This device, used in orthopedic surgery to lengthen or reshape limb bones, was invented after the Second World War in Siberia, where the surgeon Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov was researching how to treat the soldiers who had suffered limb injuries. The subject of the body reconstructed with medical devices is inseparable in Gervickaitė’s work from the artist’s personal experiences, because she has undergone numerous orthopedic surgeries from an early age. Her drawings become outtakes from clinical records – they often feature tones that replicate the colours of blood, skin, and bones. By drawing on thin paper, which shrivels as layers of acrilic paint are applied to it, Gervickaitė formally recreates the process of body’s restructuction. The artist does not deny that in her pieces she quotes personal experiences. Yet these works are more than an archive of personal experiences, because they also carefully convey what Michel Foucault said in The Birth of the Clinic about the expansion of the medical gaze. According to Foucault, medical industry does not seek to provide health to frail bodies. This industry ceaselessly inspects us and essentially categorizes bodies as healthy or sick, acceptable or inacceptable, life-giving or signalling death. Similar to prisons and educational institutions, health industry establishes a hierarchy of bodies, marks some as normal, and controls “deviant” ones. Most pieces that Gervickaitė produced during her studies address precisely the issue of bodies disciplined by the medical industry. In addition, these earlier works explore how to embody an organism that is becoming a technological construct - with sinews intertwined with wires and screws drilled into bones. In Gervickaitė’s work, the body (or, rather, its fragments) is literally stuck in medical industry – because the bones are constantly trapped in intricate medical apparatuses.

 

These works demonstrate that we have already resigned ourselves to the fact that we are becoming medical subjects more that earlier generations used to be – we are being inspected, fixed, rehabilitated, resuscitated, and otherwise improved. Yet Gervickaitė’s strategy does not end with a nod to this state of things.

The collages exhibited in 2011 as part of Technobodies show already demonstrated the artist’s attempt to question the binary between healthy and sick or able and disabled bodies (the current exhibition contains even more of such collages and they are becoming more multi-layered than earlier pieces). Gervickaitė performs this deconstruction by playfully schematizing human body and its fragments. In collages, where materials from the operating room end up next to construction and finishing materials, it is no longer clear whether duct tape stands for ribs or medical equipment that penetrates the flesh during the surgery. Collages, in which coloured lines intersect and connect, challenge us to decide whether we look at female reproductive organs or encounter an armour-like construction (Prototype of a Technobody, 2012).

 

Bones turn into colourful schemes and remind us of board games. One wishes to put such works on a table, take the dice and figures, and set off on an odyssey through organs and bones – similar to the one in the sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage (1966). We are invited to take a look at the body stuck in the medical industrial complex through a perspective that totally subverts the pathologisation of weak body.

In addition to the above strategies, Gervickaitė’s collages invite us to interact with them in a playful manner, because they emanate hypnotic eroticism. Explicitly erotic content was also evident in the artist’s earlier pieces. For instance, The Body (2010) presents us with a bird’s-eye view of a wheelchair that evidently resembles a phallus. Now, a body with a vagina that stares at us naughtily has appeared (Plastic Surgery, 2012).

 

We also encounter an androgynous torso with an elongated object made of adhesive bandage attached to the torso’s crotch. The bandage simultaneously resembles a vagina and a penis (Operational Corset, 2012).

 

This intertwining of sexuality and the body trapped in medical industry is most evident in Gervickaitė’s latest pieces and it challenges the discourse of disability, where the subjects of pain, trauma, and recovery dominate. The body, which is being fixed with medical equipment, is increasingly eroticised and therefore it no longer belongs solely to the medical industry. This body desires, it is the subject of desire, and now sexuality that cannot be silenced (rather than prosthetics) empower it.

Gervickaitė’s works forcefully perform a complex critique of heteronormativity. The heteronormative system is ill at ease with bodies that misfit various norms, such as weaker or ailing bodies and those that belong to ethnic or sexual minorities. Sexuality of non-normative bodies is constantly stigmatized, pathologized, and controlled. The beauty industry labels fat bodies as unsexy and therefore supposedly undesirable. The sexuality of ethnic minorities is often regarded as excessive and thus frightening. We can also remember the notorious Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, where psychiatrists treated the women confined there from so-called hypersexuality (masturbation, lesbianism, or engagement in prostitution). These women mostly came from poor families. In the hospital, their sexuality could be controlled and explained as a mental disorder. Salpêtrière reminds us that medical industry is one of the principal mechanisms that categorize bodies into normal and those that end up outside of the norm. This normative order supports sex between those who are healthy and able-bodied for sex to operate as a metaphor of life’s continuity. It is for this reason that those bodies which society regards as defective, deformed, or otherwise sick, are denied the right to sexuality and sex. Gervickaitė’s works perform an entirely different and therefore radical logic. Here, torsos with exposed groins and amputated arms, stiff skeletons made of coloured strips, and prosthetics are sexy. At times, they are shamelessly obscene. As bones fall apart, heal, and crumble again, they no longer disturb us because of acute pain, but rather because of their desire – which can no longer stand silence and cannot be silenced.