Darian Goldin Stahl, Artist-in-Residence //
Healing House II
Beeswax, silk, and sewing bust
This installation materializes the feeling of unease that occurs when witnessing the dissolution of one’s flesh through biomedical imaging technologies. The penetrating waves of magnetic resonance slice and cast off the patient’s skin to uncover a lesion, and the patient is left to reconstruct her altered identity as a woman with disease. While diagnostic scanning occurs in the clinic, the memories and affects of this medical encounter reach far beyond the hospital doors. Through the use of visual metaphor and sensorial engagement, this artwork merges the medical and the domestic realms through an engagement of skins to better understand what it is like to live with chronic illness on a daily basis.
The skin we live in performs many dualities. Skin separates our insides from the outside, yet is intimately intertwined with the world. Our skin protects our viscera, but it is vulnerable to wounds and trauma. Skin reveals our histories with its creases, colors, and scars, yet keeps hidden the inner reaches our anatomies. Peeling back skin can thus be a process of seeking truth in our bodies, but in doing so, disowns the humanity that skin provides the subject. If there are so many vital roles for skin, the organ that defines one’s identity, what happens to the patient’s sense of self when an MRI machine casts off her flesh in search of a hidden diagnosis?
For the past six years, I have been working in artistic collaboration with my sister, Devan Stahl, who is a bioethicist at Michigan State University and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008. After procuring a CD of her MRI scans and sharing it with me, I felt the urgent need to return the skin that was missing in her ossified scans. My goal in enveloping her scans with skin is to reintroduce a sense of humanity to these monstrous medical images. Working from Devan’s illness narratives (Stahl, 2018), I create fleshy prints and installations that creatively transubstantiate her phantasmal patient body. By materializing the memory of a medical encounter, I aim to create experiential spaces that perform empathy and foster communities of care.
This installation consists of a person-sized, double architectural construction that is reminiscent of a townhouse or confessional. The left side of the shelter is open to reveal a red sewing bust wearing a sheer hospital gown. The right side of empty and fastened closed with two bows that recall the closures of the gown. The walls are translucent, flesh-toned, and porous—qualities that are made more apparent by the reverse illumination of yellow light. The uncanny walls of this house are wrinkled and creased like age and scars inscribed on the surface of skin. The pours of the walls, upon closer inspection, are revealed to be the charred impressions of the floral pattern found on standard hospital gowns.
The small florets branded onto the fleshy walls of this house ensure this surreal body’s illness can no longer hide within her hide. Because the hospital gown is an exemplar (Agamben 2010, 18) of illness, the pattern of this garment has been permanently branded onto the exterior skin to reflect the incurable nature of multiple sclerosis. The bright lesions that are now exposed in her MRI scans have left such an impression on her soul that she now wears the stigma of illness on her skin.
Claudia Benthien attests that the house is one of the most apt and pervasive metaphors for the body (2002, 13), the skin being the shelter we live in. The home is an especially salient metaphor for women’s bodies in particular, as it the traditionally connoted site of female labor. Elaine Scarry describes a house as “an enlargement of the body: it keeps warm and safe the individual it houses in the same way the body encloses and protects the individual within” (1985, 38). In times of illness, however, the integrity of the body’s facade is ruptured. A diagnosis has caused a schism in this patient’s psyche: continuing her daily life in the present, while attempting to imagine her unpredictable body in the future. This uneasy duality is represented by the house’s form. On one side, the female proxy of sewing bust occupies the open half of the house, which is foiled by the adjoining empty and closed portion. Because the walls are porous and compromised, the bust inside wears a second skin-like garment to protect her visceral body’s integrity. It can be said that the doubling of flesh, while adding protection, ultimately ensures the difficulty for our patient to connect with others through such a thick skin—a gesture that points to the world-diminishing and isolating effects of illness.
Steven Connor explains that yellow is one of the most complicated colors (2004, 169). Yellow skin indicates age, jaundice, or infection. Yet yellow also recalls the radiance of gold and sun. The yellow light of this house thus points to the duplicity of the body, both the corruptibility and sanctity of the human experience.
Although it is not apparent in the documentation of this artwork, an opportunity for wellness prevails through this structure’s pleasant, beeswax aroma. The fragrant home eases an otherwise uneasy structure by recalling the bygone medicinal practice of curative miasma. Until the acceptance of germ theory in the latter half of the 1800s, the dominating theory for how disease traveled was via miasma, or vaporized matter that enters the body through smell (Connor 2004, 212). Introducing a pleasant aroma into the body could therefore halt the spread of harmful miasma and combat disease. As yellow light fills the space in and around this shelter, its scent is also a world-building expansion of the body whose honey perfume seeks and provides healing for those within its reach.
When an illness is hidden within the depths of the body, it is necessary for imaging technologies to cast off the skin and reveal the harbored signs of disease. However, the exposed and fleshless patient is now left to rebuild her identity without the guidance of contemporary medicine. This art installation fulfills the need to make meaning out of medicine, and gives the patient agency to establish how her ill body is viewed and understood.
My aim is to materialize illness outside of the body so that it may become a shareable re-humanization of the patient experience. Creating uneasy art installations allows for tacit learning that words can otherwise fail to bring on. By making corporeal an internal disease, this artwork begins to break down the stigma and marginalization of those who live with illness. An opportunity is then open for viewers to impart their own experiences as a patient or caretaker and continue the world-building aspects of art. While this work is about the experiences of a single person, it is open enough for all viewers to engage with a multiplicity of meanings. Ultimately, this exchange of felt experiences dilutes one person’s bodily unease over a collection of empathic identifications, resulting in the expansion of worlds and beginning of healing.
Darian is the Artist-in-Residence at Synapsis. To see more of Darian’s work, please visit her website: http://www.dariangoldinstahl.com
Agamben, Giorgio. 2010. The Signature of All Things: On Method. New York: Zone Books.
Benthien, Claudia. 2002. Skin. New York: Columbia University Press.
Connor, Steven. 2004. The Book of Skin. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
Scarry, Elaine. 1985. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stahl, Devan. 2018. Imaging and Imagining Illness: Becoming Whole in a Broken Body. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.