Baneful Medicine, currently on view at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College, posits two historical events as the exhibition’s conceptual foundations: Joseph Mengele’s experiments on human beings at Auschwitz and the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments in Alabama during the early-to-mid 20th century. Only one artwork addresses the latter directly, Todd Ayoung’s “A National Problem”(2018), a larger banner accompanied by postcards for visitors to take. The work supposes a near future or alternate universe in which the President of the United States (whoever that may be) issues a press release apologizing to Black people for a national identity “founded on imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and racism” and to the survivors of “250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 40 years of Tuskegee syphilis study.”
This artwork is successful because its stark white text on a black background (with a subtle presidential seal in the bottom right corner) and its declarative language almost recall something actually issued by Barack Obama, or possibly Bill Clinton. While Ayoung impressively addresses the legacy of slavery and racial prejudice in the United States, however, it feels like a missed opportunity, if not a case of tokenism, that only one artwork mentions the Tuskegee experiment, cited twice in the press release.
Adjacent to Ayoung’s work is Abigail Deville’s “Medical Apartheid” (2019), a mixed-media installation comprising a room-sized assemblage of found objects along with two smaller structures that face a large assembly of wire racks and bottles. The smaller structures contain such symbolic found objects as an ironing board propped up on a sewing machine, a portrait of a Black woman, and an American flag laden with sewing pins. Crayons, Ivory soap, confederate flag playing cards, and pencils are placed under the flag. Glass bottles, branches, and metal scraps add physical weight to the assemblage, but without adding meaning. Deville’s wall text cites a New York Magazine investigation into the disproportionate mortality rate of African American infants, but her installation lacks any overt reference to this issue.
Another example of artworks for which the wall text offers more questions than answers are those of Verena Kamniarz. Her wall text references her graduate research with mice, while the works themselves — inkjet prints from 2008 picturing the rodents — likens them to successful male artists and thinkers “who have died from conditions that these mice were developed to model.” The men include Gilles Deleuze, who died of lung cancer in 1995, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for whom she cites a “compromised immune system.” Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics, but Gonzales-Torres, a gay man, died of AIDS-related complications in the late 1990s. It seems irresponsible to omit this fact for a number of reasons, but especially due to the specificity of the medical context. Next to the prints is a vitrine containing “death masks (mus musculus),” a collection of around 20 plaster molds of dead mice used in a muscular dystrophy study. Though morbid and slightly grotesque, this piece meditates on the death of the animals used in this study and grants them some dignity.
By contrast, Edouardo Kac’s GFP Bunny project (2000), which includes a series of posters, a flag, a book, and a computer-generated video sequence screened in a boxed theater, gets ample space to say next to nothing. Kac uses a genetically modified rabbit that glows in the dark as an emblem of the inherent weirdness of genetic hacking.
The cheekiness of Kac’s media (the artist invites you to take a poster for a “wheatpasting campaign”) and banality of the subject matter fall flat in comparison to other works in the show. For instance, Ruth Lieberman’s striking “Closed Cases” (2016) consists of sheets of latex overlaid with black typewriter film pinned to the wall. Visitors are invited to carefully examine these sheets, which are printed with text from various hearings and depositions with doctors who were actively involved in medical experiments using human subjects. From a distance, they resemble eerie black flags, but up close their fragility and precise construction is apparent. Next to them hangs Lieberman’s “Humans Are Not Animals”(2016), an enlarged inkjet print from a medical textbook showing three hands — one hand of a patient’s and the other two of a doctor taking the patient’s pulse. The hands can be read as either sinister or tender, which exposes the power dynamics of institutionalized medicine. The image is simple, but evocative.
Aharon Gluska’s mixed-media triptych, “Stanislaw Drobner” (2018), reproduces mugshots of a prisoner at Auschwitz, tinted a dark amber and coated with wax-like film on top. The first image, a profile, shows a metal rod in the back of the prisoner’s head, which is meant to dehumanize rather than illustrate any scientific finding. The other images, one looking forward, one with a slight sideways glance, show the prisoner’s face but his eyes are averted from the camera.
The premise of Baneful Medicine is interesting, and the exhibition includes a handful of works that support the theme and stand out visually and conceptually. Given the press release’s emphasis on the crimes perpetrated by white medical professionals on Black Americans, though, more works should have tackled this horrific history. Nevertheless, the show offers an opportunity to ponder bodily autonomy, informed consent, and how modern-day medical practice still reflects the prejudices of today’s society.
Baneful Medicine continues at the Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (860 Eleventh Avenue, Manhattan) through June 21. The exhibition was curated by Andrew Weinstein.