Art Seen: Chicago

In Sickness and In Health

ANNE BOYER: THE UNDYING // READING THE WORK OF GREGG BORDOWITZ AND BARBARA HAMMER

By Gabrielle Welsh

In her recently published book, The Undying, Anne Boyer writes, “Only certain kinds of sick people make it into art.”1 The book—a poetic meditation, if one could define it by any means—stems from the poet’s own diagnosis of a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer, and the results of such illness. She writes on the varied (and loaded) reactions of friends and acquaintances, the necessary navigation of the capitalist death-machine that is big pharma, the responsibilities (motherhood, waged labor, friendships, and care) that do not stop when one is ill.

Perhaps the absence of ‘sick people’ Boyer infers are those of figures in canonized ‘art history.’ As Boyer describes looking at a painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, an institution near the art school campus she teaches at (Kansas City Art Institute), and the museum I was first introduced to ‘fine’ art at (Boyer and I are both from suburbs of the sprawling Kansas City). In looking at the Romantic painting of a clown in a sick bed, The Illness of Pierrot (1859), Boyer notes, “I’ve never seen a painting of an incarcerated woman sick from breast cancer hanging on the wall of the Louvre. I’ve never seen one of a sick person in a car in a rural emergency room parking lot on the walls of the Met, or a sculpture of a homeless encampment tent at the Vatican, or an installation of a suicide inducing Foxconn factory at the Uffizi.”2

And yes, images of sick people are largely absent from the so-called canon of contemporary art, for better or worse.3 Oftentimes, illness is treated a metaphor rather than a lived existence, or as a profitable enterprise—the Fault in Our Stars  brand of life-meets-death-but-luckily-not-for-you films and books (and not to mention, the protagonists are white, straight, adjusted). As Boyer notes, the majority of these stories are told from the perspective of a healthy person—the mother, the sister, the survivors. I am not so much interested in using illness as a metaphor, especially within the realm of my own writing.

But there is something to be said of the way Boyer situates cancer as not only something affecting her body and lived existence, but as a navigation of the bureaucracies of medical industries, the gendered nature of care and hospitality labor, the loss of language and physicality (through chemotherapy’s effects), and the isolation of simultaneously being a patient—dependent upon doctors and medical care—and a numerical piece of data floating in the lands of medical servers. There is illness, and then there is a confrontation with one’s mortality coming sooner than expected: the dying .

This is a piece about pain.

I type cautiously, aware of my positioning as  the reasonably (and visibly) healthy relative, the writer of moments not my own. I am worried that I am stealing words; that I am being unfair. I am writing on contemporary literature and art when contemporary art (and perhaps lesser so, literature) is a monster—a monster of inequity and exhaustion that I exist within, alongside artists and authors writing of their ills.

When I think of Boyer’s analysis of art, I think of its missing bodies. I think of the portrait of St. Agatha at the Art Institute of Chicago, the patron saint of breast cancer offering her severed breasts on a plate. I think of Barbara Hammer. I think of authors like Kathy Acker and Audre Lorde and Yvonne Rainer, and the other lesbians who at one point had breast cancer, and at one point were compared to warriors battling an abstraction of bodily self-destruction.4 I think of Gregg Bordowitz and ACT UP’s DIVA TV, and films filled with mourning, anger, and loss avalanching from the AIDS Crisis (still ongoing). I think of the artists lost, and the artists who were then championed as survivors. In The New Yorker, Boyer writes, “We are supposed to be, as the titles of guidebooks instruct, feisty, sexy, snarky women, or girls, or ladies, or whatever. Also, as the T-shirts for sale on Amazon suggest, we are always supposed to be able to tell cancer that ‘you messed with the wrong bitch!’ In my case, however, cancer messed with the right bitch.”5 Across these referents, what I find most interesting are how artistic confrontations with one’s own body and mortality are blunt: not metaphorical abstractions of, or for, the benefit of those in healthy, seemingly abled-bodies.

Let’s start with Hammer, the iconic filmmaker known for experimental films of representations of lesbianism in the 1970s. First introduced to me in an Introduction to Queer Film History course, films such as Superdyke (1975) and Sync Touch (1981) established her work as focused on visually relaying touch sensations all the while creating new, imaginative worlds and scenarios. But later in her life (she died March of this year at 80), her work moved towards confrontations with her own body, dying, and illness, as she lived with terminal ovarian cancer for thirteen years. In a performative lecture held at the Whitney in 2018, The Art of Dying (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety), Hammer advocates for death as “one of the most potent subjects we can address,” with this lecture arising from her own fight with state bodies towards a dignified death—or her right to die when she pleases.6 She continues, “I am angry, not about my impending death— though there have been times when I have been angry about that, of course—but that the government has determined that I must linger through probable unconsciousness, pain, or in a deep drugged state, preventing me from being aware.”7

Her later films confront similar themes to Boyer’s—that of discomfort with a larger societal notion of the dying patient, as she recalls (likely good-intentioned) comments telling her she would get better; that she was much stronger than this illness. Instead of playing into this exhausted narrative, in 2008 she made the film, A Horse is Not a Metaphor, outlining what actually happens to the body during chemotherapy treatment, as she had never seen a filmed account of such. Horse splices clips of hair follicles falling out and wrinkled, scarred, and much older bodies than those starring in Hammer’s iconic lighthearted lesbian flicks navigating hospital rooms, swimming, riding horses. There are lighthearted moments of Hammer sitting with a horse—they touch toes to hooves and hold each other in the tender but clunky way a human holds a creature much larger and more cumbersome than itself. The words, “A HORSE IS NOT A METAPHOR” flash on the screen every few minutes, with spliced scenes of Hammer’s chemotherapy IVs dripping poisons. The film, though prefacing, speaks to her last work, Evidentiary Bodies (2018), a three-channel installation of collaged footage sourced from previous works. The film is a meditation on her life and her dying, an exit.

Before she was diagnosed with any terminal illness exhausted of modern treatment options, she was like me—familiar with death, but in terms of relatives and loved ones confronting their own mortality, and confronting them with empathy (and perhaps, as I fear I do here, co-option). Her film, Vital Signs (1991), inspired by the untimely death of her father and the suffering many of her friends due to the outbreak of the AIDS virus (and the refusal of the United States government do to anything about it), opens with Hammer slow dancing with a (presumably) plastic skeleton. The short nine-minute film unfolds with footage of hospitals and patients, loved ones kissing the heads of those bed-ridden, patients wheeled through halls, and newspapers underlined with passages like, “The moment that sickness [is] turned into a spectacle.” I would like to think we are working against the spectacle of the sick, advocating instead for the liberation of the sick and dying.

I think of a Gregg Bordowitz film, also screened in this same Queer Film History class where I meet Hammer and Vaginal Davis and Kenneth Anger and Dynasty Handbag. In his film, Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993) (that never fails to make me cry), Bordowitz takes the viewer on a journey of his AIDS diagnosis and activism(s) resulting from such. We follow him through an authentic conversation with his mother and stepfather, discussing when he first came out, and weeks later told them of his HIV+ status. Though documentary in aspects, including footage of ACT UP rallies and protests in New York City, the film also includes crucial moments of fictitious characters Bordowitz and few other characters take on, all swimming through the complexities of an illness so politicized (and quite similar to the way cancer, specifically breast cancer, is so heavily capitalized upon in such a gendered manner). He plays Alter Allesman, a panelist on a fictionalized TV segment, “Living with AIDS.” Allesman is bitter at the host, a nondescript, over-enthusiastic talk-show-type that asks how he continues to thrive with AIDS, playing into the positive clichés both Boyer and Hammer find so profoundly irritating (e.g., you’re stronger than this! ). Ending the segment, Allesman gestures the camera closer, saying, “Fuck you, fuck you! I don’t want to be yours or anyone else’s fucking model. I’m not a hero, I’m not a revolutionary body, I’m not an angel. I’m just trying to reconcile the fact that I’m going to die with the daily monotony of my life.”

Perhaps Bordowitz-turned-Allesman’s anger is indicative of the connecting threads throughout these three artists’ works. All three are confronted with mortality earlier than expected, and in turn, possess a glaring lack of previous conversation or mentorship on what to do when one is put in such a situation. Are these situations not akin to Boyer’s confrontation of the American healthcare system, having to work through aggressive chemotherapy? Bordowitz’s illness is politicized and villainized into a being much larger than himself; Hammer’s desire to die, while the state denies such a right (and of course continues to kill those not white all the same). Much like Boyer, in that he is a writer himself, Bordowitz brings Fast Trip to a head with archival footage spliced with him speaking, meditating on his positioning as a sick person:

People have been dying and suffering of all kinds of things for some time. I guess I’m just a part of history. Until now, youth and ignorance have afforded me a kind of arrogance. I thought I was unique, my suffering was different, my misery was a new kind of misery. What’s new about it is the way we speak about it, the meaning we make about it. What’s not so new is the misery.8 

This film, in its vulnerability and intimacy, mashes varied emotions and ways of reacting to the diagnosis of a terminal illness. It is angry, loaded, and felt.

I sit in the odd conundrum of being bored and burnout by contemporary art, yet also being deeply touched by these films. I wonder how all of this sits within museum and institutional settings—these self-meditations on illness. Recently, as with Bordowitz’s massive exhibition that just closed at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Wexner-funded exhibition of the last works of Hammer’s life, the museum/gallery presents an odd sensory experience of works that derive from illness. The museum focuses on the positive and happy, despite how negative and unhappy the world-at-large seems to be. Artist Martha Rosler writes of this in her essay, “Why Are People Being So Nice?” published in e—flux, when she says, “In the experience economy, a primary mission of museums has become the promise not of cultivation and contemplation, but rather edification and amazement…like public relations happytalk, museums and galleries are publicly thrilled, excited, and delighted.”9 This is all, of course, a selling point. Underpaid and overly stressful labor and relations in the arts are disguised as formality and politeness, necessities to please the art patrons.10 Perhaps these angry, mournful meditations on the sick, like Bordowitz’s and Hammer’s works, break this wall. Or maybe they are sucked back into the vacuum, I have no answer.

Near the end of her book, Boyer confesses she is undying, meaning the chemotherapy worked (and by worked, it bore serious risks that will follow her throughout her life, but her cancer has stopped growing). She writes in this state, reflecting upon her continual pain and exhaustion, both from the surgeries and therapies, and the medical bills and unpaid time off. She writes,

It can hurt that we enter and exit, are entered and left, that we are born into another sentient other’s hands and into the environment more sentient others built around us, born into the rest in the world, all capable of pain, too, which will make us hurt even more. A reminder of our un-oneness is at least one counterpurpose of literature. This is why I tried to write down pain’s leaky democracies, the shared vistas of the terribly felt.11

I would like to think that this why artists such as Bordowitz and Hammer continue to make: to fill in the gaps within the sprawling landscape of shared pain. Or rather, their attempts to expose it.


1 Boyer, Anne. The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer,…and Care. FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX, 2019. (105)
2 Ibid.
3 This is a question of which is worse: representation within a corrupted system, or none at all?
4 Throughout the book, Boyer engages with those before her that wrote of illness and art, illness and femininity, illness and dying, such as Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, Kathy Acker, and Audre Lorde, among others.
5 Boyer, Anne. The Undying. (78)
6 “The Art of Dying or (Palliative Art Making in the Age of Anxiety),” The Whitney Museum of American Art, October 18, 2018.
7 Ibid.
8 Bordowitz, Gregg. Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993). Collection of the Video Data Bank.
9 Rosler, Martha. “Why Are People Being So Nice?” e—flux, Journal #77. November 2016.
10 Rosler notes too, that the majority of underpaid labor in the artworld is done by women. Boyer notes the same of the hospitals and outpatient centers she navigates.
11 Boyer, Anne. The Undying. (29)

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