LONDON — An art critic, an herbalist, and a former nun walk into a gallery. I shuffle into a side room alongside other curious visitors for what will be a three-hour tutorial on herbal ointment preparation. The culmination of her residency, Rachal Bradley’s conceptual exhibition, Interlocutor, revolves around low-fi remedies to our high-fi, high-tech institutional ills.
Produced by Gasworks in South London, Bradley has transformed the gallery’s interiors with a tonic-infused resin meant to ameliorate the encroaching forces of capitalism assailing the art world. Although it may sound ridiculous, this hippie-dippy endeavor has spent significant time in the planning stages. Rooted in a feminist lineage of institutional critique, Bradley is interested in reviving the autonomy of individuals within patriarchal organizations and arguing for a revival of more spiritual strains of thinking against the cold logic of capitalism. To accomplish this project, she enlisted the help of her sister, Lucie Bradley, a medicinal herbalist based in Glasgow. Before the exhibition opened, both had interviewed the gallery’s employees about their jobs, creating the trademarked and patent pending Infinite Resistance™ ointment that now lacquers the gallery’s floors as a salve.
Back in the workshop, we drink marigold tea and watch rosemary-infused oils boil on a hot plate. This is a serious seminar about herbalism, an obvious fact that evaded me for the initial minutes of the session as we discussed the evils of modern medicine and (gulp) vaccinations. (The art world’s appetite for snark has clearly clouded my judgment. How could an Infinite Resistance™ ointment not be a joke?) Lucie Bradley leads us in an open discussion about the history, uses, and implications of herbal remedies. As a diehard urbanite, the idea that seasoning herbs from the kitchen can combat colds, coughs, and the flu sounds far-fetched. Nevertheless, Bradley explains that even dried herbs from Tesco can have some palliative effect on your health.
With a background in the hard sciences, Bradley’s justification of herbal medicine is initially convincing. She is not a puritan: she does not demand the end to modern medicine, but rather, the end to normative care. Herbalism is a practice based on hyper-local traditions, organics, and ancestral recipes. As such, it resists the notion that medicinal cures can be standardized without significantly affecting patients. Like her sister, Bradley prizes autonomy as a technique of empowerment against institutional hierarchies. She wants us to trust our instincts when it comes to our pain. This issue, she claims, has to do with normative standards of medical care that treat patients as problems to efficiently solve. Bradley and the former nun agree that doctors in the United Kingdom rarely listen to their patients or read their medical histories. The workshop participants collectively estimate that, at most, physicians spend ten to twenty minutes maximum talking to their patients. (Actual statistics vary from country to country, but one study from Spain claims that general practice doctors spend less than seven minutes per patient.) Treating pain is also obviously a gendered issue. Numerous anecdotes and studies have shown that doctors often ignore female pain as constructed or exaggerated.
I wish that Rachal Bradley’s exhibition had as clear a thesis as her sister’s workshop. Later, with rosemary ointment in hand, I revisited the artist’s exhibition. Although I understand the concept behind Bradley’s empty gallery — presenting this institution as a vapid, empty structure in order to critique other institutions — I find this a lackluster point. The resin-soaked floor of the white cube space feels unbalanced and shifty — a reference to the fragility of cultural structures? In spots, the resin seems to be cultivating mold. I have nothing personal against the mold (except allergies), but it looks less like a solution to institutional ills and more like an aggravation. However, Bradley’s second room is dimwitted. There, inside a fake washing machine, a Mike Piscitelli photograph hangs. An odd addition, it depicts the professional skateboarder Jason Dill, who stands arms crossed in front of the crumbling Twin Towers on 9/11 — billowing smoke and all. Why is this here? As an image of institutional collapse? As an image of tourism? Is such destruction what the Infinite Resistance™ ointment will germinate? More likely, I think, Bradley chose this photograph as a vision of nonchalance in the face of mass atrocity without thinking through its broader implications.
Outside, Bradley has added to the gallery’s façade a machine the press release calls “a series of purpose-engineered, vacuum-formed units,” which apparently “transform the organization into a negative ion generator.” Another subject bordering on scientific scrutiny, negative ions are thought to purify the air of harmful pathogens and alleviate depression. Comparing the faltering art magic of Rachal Bradley with the herbal medical-mysticism of her sister, I may just have to side with the plants on this one.