Contained: Past Histories and Possible Futures of Containing Disease

by Mariah Lamont-Lennox

I was back in Toronto, my hometown, this past week and I was so happy that I had the opportunity to see the exhibition Contained by artist Elaine Whittaker at The Red Head Gallery.

The Red Head Gallery is an artist-run collective whose mandate is to exhibit established as well as emerging artists. The Gallery is located in the famous 401 Richmond Arts Building in Downtown Toronto. When I was a child, my mother (also an artist), was a member of the Redhead Gallery Collective and consequently I spent a lot of time at the gallery as a young child, playing with office supplies under the front desk, exploring the rest of the building (probably unsupervised) and most likely wreaking a bit of havoc while my mum worked in the gallery and mounted her own exhibitions. I have so many wonderful memories at that gallery and so, on a bit of a nostalgic whim, my mum and I went to check out The Red Head Gallery and several of the other galleries in the building.

The exhibition on display this month was the work of Canadian artist Elaine Whittaker. Whittaker’s work explores the intersection between art, science and medicine with a particular focus on pandemics and infectious disease. In her artist statement, Whittaker describes how she considers biology a contemporary art practice.

Contained is an exhibition concerning the disease Tuberculosis and was inspired by the experiences of Whittaker’s mother who contracted the disease at age twenty. There are many works of art featured in a wide range of mediums, from prints to installations.

In 1944, Whittaker’s mother contracted Tuberculosis and as this was prior to antibiotic development, she had to spend two years in a Sanatorium for treatment which involved rest therapy: described in the artist statement as constant bed rest, healthy diet, fresh air and pneumothorax (collapsing the lung so that it can repair itself by cutting off the oxygen supply to the tuberculosis bacteria). Tuberculosis, also called TB, has been around for thousands of years. It is an infectious disease that typically effects the lungs but can also effect other parts of the body. It is highly contagious - the bacteria is spread through the air by coughing and sneezing.

In this exhibition, Whittaker begins by exploring her mother’s experience with this type of treatment. The artist interviewed her mother about this period in the sanatorium and then interpreted this in her art practice. Lying in bed all day, Whittaker’s mother would look out the window at fields and forests - this is referenced in the work Fragile Forest (2017). She also remembered seeing birds and so Whittaker wanted to explore the notion of being trapped and wanting to fly out of the hospital. This reference can be seen in the work At Rest: Flight (2018).

Whittaker wanted to evoke a sense of hope by combining the cells of plant matter, specifically maple leaves with lung cells. The trees and leaves are the lungs of the earth and so she uses this as a metaphor for what her mother had experienced. In much of this work Whittaker is drawing upon her own bio-medical research from her artist residency at Pelling Laboratory for Augmented Biology (University of Ottawa), using materials such as avian lungs, plant fibre containing human lung cells and biomaterial in installations and sculptures.

Elaine Whittaker, Fraught Air, 2018. Oxygen masks.

Elaine Whittaker, Fraught Air, 2018. Oxygen masks.

The piece Fraught Air (2018) which depicts modern oxygen masks, is an exploration of the state of modern medicine for the treatment of TB. At one time the disease was thought to be almost eradicated, but due to antibiotic resistance strains which were discovered in the 1980s, rates of TB actually rose. According to the World Health Organization’s 2017 report on TB, approximately 10.4 million people became ill from TB in 2016. It is also the ninth leading cause of death worldwide and the leading cause from a single infectious agent, ranking above HIV/AIDS. This exhibition explores a past experience of Tuberculosis while evoking a sense of the increasing uncertainty of medical interventions that is the present reality of Tuberculosis treatment.

This exhibition was a well thought out conceptual exploration into a disease through the personal experience of someone close to the artist. Whittaker handles her subject matter with a great tenderness and respect, while using her immense skill to create a visual reference that is beautiful, thought provoking and unique.

Contained is on display now through March 24th, 2018.

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