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by Ann M. Fox

Associate Professor of English,
Davidson College
Co-curator of RE/FORMATIONS


Professor Fox specializes in twentieth-century dramatic literature and disability studies. Her teaching interests include modern drama, disability in literature, feminist theater, contemporary American multicultural drama, performance theory, and women writers. Her scholarship has traced the rise of feminist sensibilities in American commercial theater; her articles on playwrights Rachel Crothers and Sophie Treadwell have been published in Text and Presentation, while her study of Dorothy Parker’s playwriting appears in the volume The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker. More recently, her work on disability and performance has been published in Contemporary Theatre Review, the National Women’s Studies Association Journal, and the book Gendering Disability. She has served on the executive board of the Society for Disability Studies, and was an American Association of University Women American Postdoctoral Fellow for 2003-2004. Her current book project traces the representation of disability on the twentieth-century commercial stage. Dr. Fox is also the coordinator for the Gender Studies Concentration at Davidson College.

Disability, while being very materially real, is in some sense also a performance, since disabled bodies are assigned a panoply of roles by our culture:  the freak to be voyeuristically stared at, the poster child, the heroic overcomer  (a.k.a. the “supercrip”),  the abject victim, the object of medical study, the pathology to be cured, the fate-worse-than death,  and the wondrous spectacle; these are the performances that disabled bodies, with or without their agreement, are compelled to enact.  Or as the late disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson described it:

Because the world sets people with conspicuous disabilities apart as different, we become objects of fascination, curiosity, and analysis. We are read as avatars of misfortune and misery, stock figures in melodramas about courage and determination. The world wants our lives to fit into a few rigid narrative templates:  how I conquered disability (and others can conquer their Bad Things!), how I adjusted to disability (and a positive attitude can move mountains!), how disability made me wise (you can only marvel and hope it never happens to you!), how disability brought me to Jesus (but redemption is waiting for you if only you pray). For me, real life has meant resisting those formulaic narratives. 


From the moment we encounter Rebecca Horn’s kinetic sculpture Amerika, we know that the upending of narratives will be the order of the day in Re/Formations.   Horn fragments a book, and as its pages float on thin metal arm extensions that move back in forth in concert, wing-like, taking flight beyond the way they have been literally bound (indeed, a feather is playfully inserted among the pages).   In Amerika, text is literally and figuratively destabilized, leading us to wonder what other meanings we might play with, if given the chance.   The artists in this exhibition similarly refuse such formulaic narratives, as they resist, in different ways, those familiar, easy, shorthand definitions of disability and female identity. In Harriet Sanderson’s installation Molt, with Scurs, created specially for this exhibit,  the “cane chair” that sits at one end of the gallery is such a device.  The caning of the chair seat is punningly made of “cane”; in this case, the end tips of canes of different colors, gathered and arranged on the chair seat they constitute. The tips seem to take on a life of their own, removed from their usual role as walking devices; at rest, their “heads” bend inquisitively, almost tenderly, in multiple directions. There’s a personification of these typically medicalized objects, a beauty, and a distinct eroticism, in their arrangement and placement.   Unshackled from metaphoric weight, their very multiplicity recalls the individuality of all those who might, at one time or another, have been at motion with a cane or rest in the chair. The cane as a marker of illness and immobility is turned upside down, literally and figuratively, as we note in seeing the cane handles swing whimsically from the chair seat. 

Judith Scott’s own wrapped sculptures directly intervene into several narratives at once.   Presumptions about cognitive impairment are disturbed, as the vivid color, complexity, and layering of her works belie the presumption that art made by people with cognitive disabilities (Scott had Down Syndrome) should be sentimentalized, simplistic, or childlike.  Like Sanderson’s sculpture, one of Scott’s works here also features a chair; a bicycle wheel, another object for movement, is here seated on it, much like Sanderson’s cane tips are “seated.”  Mobility and immobility are juxtaposed; the object that suggests movement is encased within the layers of string, yarn, and fabric that bind it to the barely viewable blue chair underneath.  On top of all that is a basket, almost the “belly” of the chair as a figure. But it is overturned, pregnant with meaning, and whether it hides and protects something else remains unknown to us, as do the layers and layers of surface underneath all the wrappings.  Scott’s work suggests an inner imaginative life, and denies the extremes accorded to people with cognitive impairments: that they are either simple and docile, or volatile and unmanageable.  The purposeful verve of her wrappings upends the hierarchy of disability that makes us more comfortable with physical impairments that we can see and define than those we cannot see, or that we presume deny a core identity or imaginative vision.   And while it is impossible to know Scott’s intent, it is striking that in another of her wrapped sculptures (a round, untitled work, roughly the shape of an egg) a small piece of cloth imprinted with a fashion illustration of a model’s head peeps out from the wrapping.   The head is disembodied from its presumably perfect form, and overwhelmed by the power and abstract form of whatsurrounds/entraps/overwhelms it.  What emerges for the viewer is an answer (part playful, part painful) to the strictures of normalcy that had an all-too-real implication for Scott, who was institutionalized for much of her life. 

 

Nancy Fried’s torsos, cast from her own post-mastectomy body, deny the imposition of tragedy onto the body of the breast cancer survivor. Hands on Hips represents not disfigurement, but the configuration of the female body anew. Fried emphasizes the importance of accepting one’s own body, rather than the standards for beauty that would insist a female form be lithe, unscarred, and whole; as she writes, “I want to make work that depicts a truthfully rendered female figure, rather than the idealized perfect image that our culture demands of women.  Women age, get wrinkles, rolls of fat, lose breasts and still remain beautiful. Hopefully my work redefines female beauty with all of its scars and flaws.” Hands on Hips confronts us, with slight exasperation but not unkindly; it insists the bodies of the scarred be accorded a place of worth and dignity. For the breast cancer survivor, that means rejecting pity, invisibility, or being swept away under an avalanche of pink-beribboned merchandise. For all women, as Fried’s words suggest, such self-acceptance has revolutionary implications.

As Fried’s work suggests, one of the more striking narratives that is engaged by works in this exhibit is fear: the fear of disability, of fragmentation, and of infection. Laura Splan’s Doilies, a series of computerized, machine-embroidered doilies, base their designs on different viral structures: Herpes virus, HIV virus, SARS virus, Hepadna virus, and Influenza virus. In explaining the juxtaposition of such delicate, domestic objects with the otherwise unseen, Splan observes that “bio-terrorism, SARS, and antibacterial soaps alike have all heightened our awareness of the microbial world….Here domestic artifacts and heirlooms manifest the psychological heredity of our cultural anxieties.” That fear and anxiety is what we typically allow ourselves, rather than its direct confrontation; the end result is the vilification of the disabled or defective body. Splan makes us keenly aware of how that fear of infection has resulted in a new role for the good mother-as-domestic: gatekeeper against infection, as the hyper-proliferation of antibacterial wipes and hand gels suggests. More insidiously, that fear of infection is used as the site onto which we displace our own contemporary fears of difference and insistence on borders. To weave these viral structures onto feminine objects suggests the ways in which the protection of female “purity” has been used as a justification for patriarchal strictures and horrendous acts.

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