The death of Susan Sontag in late December undoubtedly reminded readers of the myriad topics -- some joyful, some painful -- she devoted her life to chronicling. Having lived with cancer for more than 30 years, Sontag had become an eloquent observer of life and art, as well as suffering and pain. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, perhaps captured her work best in a quote included in Sontag's obituary in the New York Times: "The theme that runs through Susan's writing is this lifelong struggle to arrive at the proper balance between the moral and the aesthetic."
Those words lend some insight as well to the works featured in Inside Out Loud: Visualizing Women's Health in Contemporary Art, the new exhibition at Washington University's Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. The show brings together 30 artists working in a variety of media, who reflect on women's health, the medical discourse and the personal experiences in which they converge. The planning goes back more than two years, long before Sontag's death, but her passing makes the occasion of Inside Out Loud particularly timely.
Just as timely are the dozens of public events scheduled in conjunction with Inside Out Loud -- panel discussions, health screenings, performances and other art exhibitions, all focusing on issues of women and health, at venues all over the region. What will unfold over the next three months is a response to the evident need for a public forum in which to engage this complex topic.
Wash. U. serves as the nexus of the events staged from now through April. Inside Out Loud officially opens this Friday, January 21, after which the school follows up with programs that approach the topic of women and health from some fascinating angles. Among the offerings: a free January 28 Steinberg Hall screening of Todd Haynes' classic film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which is acted out almost entirely with Barbie dolls; as well as Haynes' Safe (April 8, also at Steinberg), starring Julianne Moore in an elaborate metaphorical meditation on AIDS.
In addition, the regular "Friday Forum" discussion series at Washington University during this period will be devoted to issues of women's health. The February 25 session is titled "On the Body: Women, Health, and Contemporary Culture"; April 22 brings "The Mind-Body Problem." The School of Medicine holds its Annual Women's Health Symposium January 22, while the Center for the Humanities has scheduled evenings with poets Marilyn Hacker and Rafael Campo on March 18 and April 15.
The events at Wash. U. are richly varied. No less engaging are the related programs slated all across the region. Many of these, like Inside Out Loud, explore women's history and representations of health through art. One of the more harrowing of these explorations is The Art of Illness: Examining the Biomedical Paradigm, a photography exhibition at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's Morris University Center Art Gallery.
Curated by SIUE photography professor Steve Brown, The Art of Illness is a stunning exhibition that brings together works by nine artists who challenge the visual tropes of medical discourse, often by representing personal encounters with illness. (Brown is a colleague of mine at SIUE.) Photographer and art historian Deborah Bright will deliver a lecture, "Queering Illness: Dr. Agnew and Me," on January 27 at 5 p.m. in the SIUE Art and Design Building. The talk is open to the public.
Art St. Louis weighs in with A Dash of Estrogen: Survival through Humor, a group exhibition of local and regional artists, juried by this writer, from March 21 through April 29. Award-winning photographer Susan Meiselas, best known for her documentary work on women at the margins of society, delivers "Photographer Without Borders," a public lecture at the Saint Louis Art Museum on April 6 at 7 p.m. And the St. Louis Artists' Guild is currently showing Voices Within: Surviving through the Arts, a national exhibition juried by artist Katherine Sherwood (who is featured in Inside Out Loud), on view through March 5.
(A comprehensive listing of the events staged in conjunction with the exhibition is available on request; call Stephanie Parrish at 314-935-7918 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In the end, the catalyst that sparked far-reaching programming remains the site of the most intense, thought-provoking subjects of all these explorations. Guest curator Janine Mileaf, assistant professor of art history at Swarthmore College, points out that Inside Out Loud isn't just another art exhibition devoted to the female body. "We wanted to point out that women's health isn't just a category that exists, like anatomy," she explains. "Women's health is a constructed category. We wanted to look structurally and historically at how the visual arts and women's health have come together to produce meaningful representations."
The exhibition divides 50 artworks by more than 30 artists into three sections, "Art of Opposition," "Painting Public and Private" and "Self-Reflected," which suggest fascinating visual and thematic connections among them. The sectioning is a welcome device, providing thoughtful inroads into an otherwise unwieldy selection of works.
The roster of Inside Out Loud artists -- Mark Dion and J. Morgan Puett, Nan Goldin, Gran Fury, Jenny Holzer, Orlan, Zoe Leonard, Cindy Sherman and more -- reads like the table of contents of a good textbook on contemporary art. What's astonishing is that these 30-plus artists all have, at one point or another in their careers, turned to the theme of women and health, and their takes on the subject are provocative, intelligent and often unsettling.
One of the central accomplishments of Inside Out Loud is its recontextualization of classic 1970s feminist conceptual work among more recent explorations of women's health that involve new media and technology. Martha Rosler's video "Losing: A Conversation with the Parents" (1977), concerning a daughter's death from anorexia, takes on a new light when seen together with Elizabeth Subrin's 1995 video "Swallow," which focuses on contemporary cultural pressures that cause eating disorders.
Works by Hannah Wilke deservedly enjoy a central position in this exhibition. On view are powerful photographs that survey the ravages of cancer and its treatment, as it affected her mother, and then herself. Portrait of the Artist with her Mother, Selma Butter (1978-1981) shows Butter, after a mastectomy and a stroke, alongside an image of Wilke, who's sporting toy weapons on her chest. Later self-portraits, such as Intra-Venus #4 (1992), feature the artist herself grappling with the effects of chemotherapy by role-playing for her camera. By creating and enacting a metaphorical language of her experience, Wilke subverts the familiar classification of cancer sufferer as unfortunate victim, lacking control of her medical fate. Wilke died in 1993 at the age of 53, but her spirit seems to abide in every work in this show.
And while Susan Sontag is not represented directly in this exhibition, her spirit likewise pervades it. The author of "Illness as Metaphor" and Regarding the Pain of Others would certainly have appreciated Inside Out Loud. Here, it's the artists, not the doctors, who wield the tools; with them, the artists deconstruct the dominant social and medical discourses surrounding the lives of women. Their work will likely permanently alter the way you think about women, health, sickness and life.