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Reading Rämistrasse #138: Shen He on Interdependencies: Perspectives on Care and Resilience at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #138: Shen He on Interdependencies: Perspectives on Care and Resilience at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst

Amidst the care crisis heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the current exhibition at Migros Museum is timely. Over two floors, the exhibition has brought together 14 artistic positions, complemented through a diverse event programme, a caring space and various strategies to extend the accessibility, which, according to the museum’s guidelines, should last in the foreseeable future.

The museum has implemented free entry. Reduced mobility is addressed through strategies ranging from disabled parking spaces, elevators and gender-neutral and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, to offering wheelchairs, allowing assistance dogs and marking on steps for the visually impaired. Sign language translation, an audio guide and easy-to-read text in German and English are offered as exhibition information and, when possible, at events and symposia. Warnings relating to the exhibition content and a glossary are also given on the museum’s website. Various seating possibilities, free drinks and a reading corner are offered in the caring space, allowing visitors to have a place to rest without having to consume. In addition, barriers that have not yet been removed are clearly acknowledged in the accessibility document, with the promise that they will be removed in the future.

In general, this detailed action plan is an impressive example of engaging with care issues as a subject matter and as actual doing. The caring space has the potential to more explicitly address certain aspects of care, such as childcare, sensory overload or safer space, which is something for the museum to consider.

As an anthology on care, the exhibition embraces the complex, intersectional and sometimes incoherent nature of how care is understood. Widely different artistic positions are brought together under the three categories of political care, collective care and self-care. This framing seems somewhat puzzling to me. As self and collective are often understood as opposing concepts, I wonder whether more articulation is needed than putting them next to each other. Also, is care not always political?

Meanwhile, the curator’s focus on healing (often in relation to sickness) seems to be quite effective in bringing most of the artworks together. Visiting the exhibition, I feel radically provoked by the question of what healing can mean when it comes to crip, sick, queer and other non-normative bodies. On the ground floor, Carolyn Lazard overlays a simple animation of an online EMDR (Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) video with a conversation between a therapist and their client. In Consensual Healing, 2018, the video shows a yellow ball bouncing back and forth against the black background that is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The conversation refers to Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild, a science fiction about biopolitical exploitation and the inevitability of surgical violation. Here, healing is defined by the medical treatment protocol as a productive process through which equilibrium is re-established, while the social-political reality that causes the trauma is absent. Maryam Jafri’s Depression aus der Serie: 'Wellness-Postindustrial Complex', 2017, placed adjacently, addresses how alternative healing practices such as Chinese acupuncture have been appropriated by the wellness industry. The piece consists of a plywood case with a pair of silicon feet filled with needles, glass cupping equipment (for improving the Qi circulation in the body) in egg cartons and found images (with watermarks) of these cups sucking the body. The egg carton and watermarks are clear signs of circulation, referring to the commercialisation of this healing practice. The promotion of self-care, often in combination with independence, is very much a neo-liberal invention. While the latter denies our interdependent care needs and undermines care work often carried out by women as unproductive, the former incites consumption in the name of care.

Exhibition view Interdependencies: Perspectives on Care and Resilience, Jesse Darling, Untitled (still life), 2018 - ongoing

Courtesy the artist and Arcadia Missa, London. Photo: Studio Stucky

Upstairs, Untitled (Still Life), 2018 and ongoing, by Jesse Darling (Turner Prize 2023 winner) presents a beautiful ensemble of bouquets on plinths, covered by transparent cases. The bouquets wither and fall, manifesting literal deterioration which evokes the irresistible process of ageing and decay. What else can healing mean when there is no amelioration promised? Tripping Hazard, 2023, from Carmen and Antonio Papalia replicates the hub interior where they plant cannabis as an alternative painkiller for Carmen after his vision loss. Technical devices such as the ventilator, water hose and light are accompanied by a documentary video of the brothers’ kinship, resistance to the pharmaceutical industry as well as Carmen’s activist engagement for access to public space for a larger community.

The climax of my visit comes at the unfolding of Lauryn Youden’s wonderful series Venus in Scorpio, all 2023. In astrology the series title means being upfront with one’s feelings and going below the surface to examine power, fear, sex and desire. Indeed, while experiencing chronic pain the artist closely examines how ableist our everyday care infrastructure is. Youden is a member of the Sickness Affinity Group (SAG), a support group of artists centred around sickness/disability and expanded networks of care. Six large sculpture pieces are hung from the ceiling, each one a piece of furniture/object complemented with ribbons, books, chains and pop culture merchandise. The hanging situation not only allows 360-degree observation of the many details but also visually presents the works as unstable, contrasting how those furniture pieces are usually perceived.

Among the six pieces, the trampoline in But Have You Tried Yoga? was recommended by the doctor as a healing method, assuming a mobility that cannot be achieved with chronic pain. The LC2 armchair designed by Le Corbusier in Hot Topic Esoteric Bimbo points to his affinity to fascism and eugenics, well reflected in his design (and perhaps also many other designs in general) that neglects e.g. sick bodies which cannot rest in the way of sitting intended. By tying the book X-Ray Architecture by Beatriz Colomina to the walking cane in the piece In The Fear of Disease, Youden cites Colomina’s critique of Modernist architecture. Colomina argues that under the influence of medical discourse and diagnostic technologies, modernist architecture has been thought of as a medical instrument that practices a normality that excludes sickness.

When placed next to the word sickness, healing automatically obtains a positive, recovering aura, while sickness represents the negative, abnormal and pathological. This good-bad binary relies on the normativity of what we define as health and all the other known and unknown ways of being as sick. This exhibition asks the question of how healing will be different when the line between the normal and the pathological is erased. What is healing if we start to realise that we must live with sickness, pain, disability, occasional alleviation, trauma and decay of our bodies?

In 2020, E-flux Architecture published an issue titled Sick Architecture. After the first Covid-19 lockdown, the issue brought together 35 essays (one of them by Beatriz Colomina). Sickness, architecture, care and normality are precisely articulated. An excerpt from the editorial as an example:

Every new disease is hosted within the architecture formed by previous diseases in a kind of archaeological nesting of disease. Each medical event activates deep histories of architecture and illness, along with all the associated fears, misunderstandings, prejudices, inequities, and innovations.

While the pandemic seems to be over today, we find ourselves still haunted by its aftermath. It permeates into our mental well-being, intimate social life and everyday trivialities. At this moment when care and healing are being rethought, this exhibition points out that inequities and prejudices have never been absent; pandemics only reshape them. A radical politics of healing must involve the dismantling of such fear, inequities and prejudices that are nested in the layered crust of sickness we dwell in, which calls for a collective endeavour. As bell hooks writes: ‘Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.’ (1) For artists like Lauryn Youden, Carmen Papalia, Rory Pilgrim and the vacuum cleaner and collaborators, making art itself is already part of their collective care.

Interdependencies: Perspectives on Care and Resilience at Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 7 October 2023–21 January 2024

(1) bell hooks, All About Love. (US: HarperCollins, 2023)

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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