Refracting the Clinical Gaze: Cristin Millett’s Obstetrical Sculptures

Cristin Millett, Teatro Anatomico, multimedia installation with interactive video projection.

Cristin Millett, Teatro Anatomico, multimedia installation with interactive video projection.

by Grace Linden

“…the hospital domain is no doubt not pure transparency to truth, but the refraction that is proper to it makes possible through its constancy, the analysis of truth.” [1]

Michel Foucault

“It is the description, or, rather, the implicit labour of language in description, that authorizes the transformation of symptom into sign and the passage from patient to disease and from the individual to the conceptual.”[2]

Michel Foucault

Sculptor Cristin Millett opens up corpses. She dissects histories of medical perceptions that influence and are informed by societal attitudes about bodies, especially the bodies of women. Her process is rooted in object making, often involving the fabrication of elaborate sculptural forms, either by creating works from scratch or by modifying found objects. These objects and spaces invite observation by the audience, making themselves visible in traditional gallery or museum spaces. However, Millett doubles the gaze of the observer by making works about the social dynamics and politics of looking, and by rendering participants visible to the observation of others. Her installations, often models of clinical environments, thus function as lenses, microscopes, scalpels, windows, screens, portals, and specula for revealing how we see and feel about women’s bodies.

Indeed, from childhood, Millett was surrounded by conversations about the body. Growing up in a family of scientists, she has always been fascinated by medical discussion, an interest which later manifested itself in her art. She explains that she began to study gynecology as a means to “overcome both fear and ignorance of [her] own body.”[3] Her research focuses on the human reproductive system and female anatomy with the aim of contextualizing and illuminating “taboos surrounding sexuality.”[4] Millett’s practice asks viewers to consider how, as a society, we “perceive, stereotype, and stigmatize the female body”[5] and how social constructs have propagated this sense of shame?

The female reproductive system is the subject of scrutiny in one of the artist’s most ambitious installations to date, “Teatro Anatomico” (2005).  The walk-in installation is composed of three concentric oval walls of semi-transparent chiffon panels decorated with historical illustrations, in which the female figure features prominently. Each illustration is set into an oval medallion frame printed in trompe l’oeil style over a patterned wall-paper and wainscoting. The outer ring (Ellipse C) displays medical illustrations showing cut-away views of the female reproductive system appropriated from 16th-19th century anatomy texts. The middle ring (Ellipse B) illustrates images culled from primarily 16th century texts showing classically posed figures with visible reproductive organs. One image by Scipione Mercurio (1601) represents a woman in contrapposto with visible uterus covering her bare breasts with her hands in a display of modesty. In another, a woodcut by Berengario dated 1521, a woman lifts a drapery revealing her own body as a sculpture posed upon a pedestal, unaffected by the gaping wound in her navel. The inner wall (Ellipse C) contains a selection of images curated from the history of western figure painting, including works by da Vinci, Piombo, Botticelli, and Bronzino, which Millett declares were selected primarily for their erotic subtexts.[6] Gaps in the walls allow participants access to the sculpture’s center, at which is located a medical examination table modified by the artist to display a reverse projection of a surgical procedure, an abdominal hysterectomy. The video, individually titled as “Abdominal Hysterectomy: Dissection of the Observer,” shows a woman’s body cut open as she lies atop an examination table; yet, a system of commercially available surveillance hardware embedded in the foot of the table films and projects the viewer’s face onto the prone body, transforming the ‘patient’ into an uncanny self portrait. Depicting actual footage of a laparoscopic hysterectomy surgery, the video represents the most recent mode of anatomical illustration depicted in the installation.[7] Overhead hangs “Lightening,” a chandelier in the shape of the female reproductive organs, composed of cast aluminum and crystals made from soft, clear fishing-lure rubber.

Cristin Millett, Plan for Teatro Anatomico

Cristin Millett, Plan for Teatro Anatomico

“Teatro Anatomico” is the outcome of Millett’s research into historic anatomy theaters in England, Italy and the United States. Cadavers as objects of medical research became popular during the Renaissance, but a scarcity of bodies required that each must accommodate multiple viewers. As a result, specific architectural spaces, that is, anatomy theaters, were designed to house numerous observers, often occupying vertically tiered structures laid out on circular or oval ground plans. “Teatro Anatomico” reimagines the historical anatomy theater in Padua, laid out in 6 concentric ellipses and similar in form to the Flavian Amphitheater although on a much more intimate scale. In the Padua theater, audience members occupy distinct superimposed tiers, looking down over the balustrades to observe the lesson, with the understanding that, like stadium seating, the best students and doctors occupy the front row seats. In Millett’s iteration, each ellipse becomes a passageway for viewers to gain access to the sculpture’s interior, with each participant enacting the transition from distanced observer to doctor and, ultimately, patient.

Seeing and observing are fundamental to Millett’s “Teatro Anatomico.” As Millett explains, anatomy theaters underscore the “inequality among the occupants.”[8] There is a hierarchy amongst the audience members reinforced by the theater’s tiered architecture. At the center would be the doctor, the most powerful figure in the scene, translating into words his observations about the body of the cadaver or patient. But equally he is the subject of observation, the one being watched and revered for his mastery and knowledge. Millett’s work participates in a history of artistic representations of anatomy lessons in which there is a strong correlation between artistic vision and the clinical gaze, including Rembrandt van Rijn’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp” (1632), and later works by Thomas Eakins, including the “Gross Clinic” (1875) and “The Agnew Clinic” (1889). A dramatic shift occurs between the Rembrandt and Eakins paintings in how the cadaver/patient is represented. In Rembrandt’s painting, Dr. Tulp occupies a place of status in the composition, however, visual emphasis is centered on the corpse through the use of implied line, light, placement, and reference to Christian iconography. The Eakins representations emphasize the status of the respective doctors engaged in the act of instruction. The bodies of the patients occupy a peripheral space within the compositions, turned away from the viewer and partially covered, though they lay at the center of the architectural space of the theater. Each painting is significant for its representations of women. In “The Gross Clinic” the emotional reaction of the female figure contrasts with the detached expressions of the male audience members. In “The Agnew Clinic” an anesthetized female patient undergoes a mastectomy treatment, incapable of returning the gaze of her male observers. The commitment to realism makes these paintings important documents of medical history, and this unflinching portrayal was controversial. The paintings’ violence and theatricality overall, as well as the nudity of the woman in “The Agnew Clinic” were shocking and offensive to late 19th century audiences and critics. This supposed indecency is exactly what Millett is pursuing: Why does the naked body and its internal functions inspire emotional responses such as disgust, embarrassment, fear, or the association with social stigma?

Cristin Millett, Abdominal Hysterectomy: Dissection of the Observer, video projection with surveillance hardware, modified exam table; and Lighting, cast aluminum, rubber, lighting element.

Cristin Millett, Abdominal Hysterectomy: Dissection of the Observer, video projection with surveillance hardware, modified exam table; and Lighting, cast aluminum, rubber, lighting element.

Cristin Millett, Teatro Anatomico, fabric scrim printed with medical illustration by Berengario dated 1521.

Cristin Millett, Teatro Anatomico, fabric scrim printed with medical illustration by Berengario dated 1521.

The theme of visual cropping in the bodies of the patients found in Eakins is preserved in “Teatro” through the layering of video projections from varied sources, which include the nude body of a prone female, the portraits of the installations’ participants projected in the place of the head, and the superimposition of found footage of a hysterectomy surgery. The body shown with a surgical wound mimics the earlier historical medical illustrations referenced in the installation, however, it also recalls a contemporary laparoscopic video work by Mona Hatoum, “Corps d’étranger” (1994). In the video Hatoum probes the exterior and interior of her own body with a magnifying camera to produce a fragmented and invasive survey of her anatomy. In French, “Corps d’étranger” translates to “stranger’s body” and here Hatoum has made the body surreal or uncanny, by showing something familiar as something other. That Hatoum allows viewers to invade her body makes every moment staring at abstracted tissue and fluids feel like an invasion or violation, raising questions about issues of privacy, surveillance, boundaries, and otherness. Writing about the postcolonial context in which Hatoum works scholar Rehnuma Sazzad writes, “The exile has the privilege of reflecting on the reality surrounding his/her identity.”[9] Indeed, Hatoum’s work should be considered within her politically fraught heritage as a Palestinian refugee in Germany, yet “Corps…’” politics extend both to her identity as an artist and to her relationship with her audience. For instance, the modernist assumption that the artist’s inner thoughts and feelings, typically signified through expressionistic mark making on a painting support, is turned on its head by literally permitting the viewer access to the artist’s internal organs. This differs from the way the theme of spectatorship is presented in Millett’s installation, which though rooted in an impulse for corporeal self-knowledge, is not about the body of the artist or even the participant, but rather the visual politics of the clinical gaze and how it informs “historically and socially determined assumptions”[10] with personal psychological and collective political implications. Millett’s video, thus, functions by collapsing the distance between the observer and the patient, and through the shock of seeing oneself as the patient with viscera exposed to the gaze. Both Hatoum and Millett share a sense of unmooring: Hatoum, is an exile from her home and Millett an exile from her body. Each artist shares an anxiety about the power of the gaze to plumb the unknown depths of the body.

Michel Foucault’s historical analysis of medical perception and the development of the clinical gaze offers a context for understanding the broader critiques and commentary within Millett’s practice. In The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception he writes, “The observing gaze refrains from intervening: It is silent and gestureless.”[11] It allows doctors to analyze the patient’s body while remaining distant physically and psychologically. Later, however, the gaze deepens, piercing the flesh and probing the body, reconstituting tissues as discrete transparent layers onto which the signs of illness are transcribed, and which must be read by the initiated doctor who possesses medical knowledge. This later manifestation of the gaze is inherently violent. Foucault writes, “In anatomo-clinical experience, the medical eye must see the illness spread before it, horizontally and vertically in graded depth, as it penetrates into the body, as it advances into its bulk,… as it descends into its depths.”[12]

Thus, the observational gaze bestows an almost unimpeachable power onto the doctor who controls access to the language of diagnosis and prescribed courses of treatment. To function properly, the clinical gaze must operate within the ostensibly neutral environment of the clinic, designed to insure anomalous biological processes and symptoms are rendered visible for analysis. As configured by Foucault, the clinical gaze is a dynamic, historically determined phenomenon reflexive of the systems and spaces within which it operates.

 
Cristin Millett, Transparency of Knowledge (Levret Version), multimedia installation, 2002

Cristin Millett, Transparency of Knowledge (Levret Version), multimedia installation, 2002

 

“Teatro Anatomico” models a similarly dynamic concept of the clinical gaze, and its reference to the Padua theater and other architectures and systems of knowledge suggest that Millett’s practice shares with Foucault certain post-structuralist methods of analysis and conclusions about the clinical gaze, specifically. In an earlier installation, for instance, “Transparency of Knowledge (Levret Version)” (2002) we witness Millett working through the correlation between vision and how it operates within structures, identifying the theme of transparency as problematic, but also capable of yielding insight into understanding historical attitudes about the body.

In the installation, Millett creates an architectural setting to house discrete sculptural works in the spirit of 19th century medical history museums (or perhaps examination rooms). A progressive series of rectangular chambers walled in transparent organza frame objects that merge 18th-century scientific theory with aesthetics, and appear to objectify historical medical perceptions and systems of knowledge. The walls of each of these rooms are made of organza printed with a repeating quatrefoil motif based on André Levret’s 18th century schematic of the female reproductive system at the time of conception.[13] Levret was an 18th century French obstetrician whose research on breech and caesarian deliveries transformed the field. Visitors encounter a dandelion yellow birthing chair, “Coronation Throne for Artemis,” situated in the middle of first room: a u-shaped cushion would enable the sitter to spread her legs thus facilitating childbirth. The functionality of the chair and its faithfulness as an historical reproduction is undermined, however, by the addition of cast resin breast forms inspired by ancient mother goddess statues of Artemis of Ephesus. The introduction of fertility symbolism and reference to religious cult worship create a similar tension as that found in “Teatro’s” pairing of medical illustrations and erotic painting.

 
Cristin Millett, Obstetrical Phantom from Transparency of Knowledge..., cast pelvis, glass, metal

Cristin Millett, Obstetrical Phantom from Transparency of Knowledge..., cast pelvis, glass, metal

 

Another piece, “Obstetrical Phantom,” inspired by an anatomical model for practicing birth procedures from the Museo Ostetrico, Bologna, dangles from the ceiling of another room, hung at eye level. The sculpture is composed of a glass model of a uterus suspended inside a wire basket mounted atop a cast of a pelvis. In the original historical model, a prominent opening in the pelvis provides access to the basket, presumably intended to hold a model fetus, and the whole assemblage is mounted on the semi-circular seat of a birthing chair. The forms suggest human anatomy, however, they fall short of being anatomically correct, thus foregrounding their artifice and status as sculptural forms. Similarly, Millett’s sculpture lacks functionality as a working model and therefore succeeds in calling attention to the degree to which the clinical gaze is informed by cultural attitudes, symbolism, and religious perceptions.

There is a theatrical quality to the model of the clinical gaze deployed by Millett in the “Transparency of Knowledge” similar to that in “Teatro Anatomico”. The filminess of the walls again encourages viewers to peer into other rooms at other people. Both architectures produce situations for bodies to not only circulate, but also to be watched. The color, decoration and texture of the materials emphasize the unfolding drama all of which is framed by see-through walls or curtains whose aim is to reveal instead of obscure. Millett wants her audience to be “uncomfortable [in the] awareness that they are simultaneously ‘viewing’ and being ‘viewed,’”[14] and she succeeds in making them feel like stage performers enacting socially prescribe roles.

The critical spirit of Millett’s practice recalls the work of other artist working with themes of the body and within post-structuralist modes of critique. Millett’s installations participate in a lineage with artists such as Faith Wilding and Judy Chicago (as well as male artists deconstructing masculinity, such as Matthew Barney, Mike Kelley, and Paul McCarthy) who work to dismantle patriarchal systems of knowledge and the binary oppositions upon which much structuralist thinking is based. Millett’s works question categories of knowledge and ways of seeing. Indeed, while these works are each informative, shedding light on historical medical practices, they also advocate the recuperation of the female body and embodied experience as a privileged epistemology. Conversations surrounding women’s reproductive rights are among the most politicized discourses in contemporary American democracy. And given the current political reality as of the drafting of this article Millett’s works are all the more resonant for the insights they offer. Like Hatoum probing her own insides, Millett’s intensely personal attempts to make her foreign body familiar speak to broader collective anxieties inherited from predominantly male institutional contexts, be they secular or religious. This lens, or speculum, as such, encourages intersectional understandings of the body, politics, and the way the gaze shapes both.

Learn more about Cristin Millett on the artist's Profile.


[1] Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 110.

[2] Ibid., 114.

[3] Cristin Millett, “Artist Statement,” Peripheral Vision (Accessed on 22 November 2016). http://www.peripheralvisionarts.org/millettt-profile

[4] Ibid.

[5] From artist’s website www.cristin-millett.com.

[6] Phone conversation with the artist, January 13, 2017.

[7] The depiction of historical medical illustrations contrasts with the (relatively) recent introduction of laparoscopic abdominal hysterectomies as projected onto the table. While the first abdominal hysterectomy was performed in 1843, laparoscopic abdominal hysterectomies only were introduced in 1988. Abstract for CJ Sutton, “Hysterectomy: A Historical Perspective.” Clinical Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 11 (March 1997): 1-22

[8] www.cristin-millett.com

[9] Rehnuma Sazzad, “Hatoum, Said, and Foucault: Resistance through Revealing the Power-Knowledge Nexus?” Postcolonial Text, Volume 4, Number 3 (2008), 11.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Foucault, Birth of the Clinic, 107.

[12] Foucault, Birth of the Clinic, 136.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.