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The Art of Surviving

A hard-hitting exhibit brings reality of breast cancer home

Copyright 1995 by Lynna Landstreet. This review originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

ne of the hardest-hitting art exhibits I've seen in a long time is currently on display in the unlikely venue of the Royal Ontario Museum. Survivors, In Search Of A Voice: The Art of Courage explores breast cancer through the work of 24 women artists and the input of 100 survivors of the disease.

The show's creators, Barbra Amesbury and Joan Chalmers, had been active around AIDS fundraising for some time, but felt it was time women's health issues received equal attention. Over a period of 18 months, they contacted survivors, attended gatherings, organized discussion groups and commissioned artists to create works based on the survivors' testimony.

The pieces in the show are as diverse as the survivors' experiences. Some, like Susan Schelle's array of china plates or Barbara Todd's quilt, are fairly dry and lack any obvious connection to the issue. Others, like Barbara Cole's three self-portraits depicting various stages of the disease and Susan Low-Beer's fragmented body casts, are extremely visceral and emotionally affecting.

A few address political issues: Nancy Edell's hooked rug showing an operating table over a pool of chlorinated water refers to the possible environmental causes of breast cancer. Barbara Klunder's MonkeyBusinessMen goes further, attacking the chemical industry's placement of profit over women's lives. The side panels of her sculptural box depict women as guinea pigs and coal-mine canaries, while the front shows three business-suited monkeys in a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil pose.

Other pieces seem specifically designed to scare the female viewer, like Barbara Steinman's three-panel mirror topped by photos of a decaying Madonna statue, or Renée van Halm's One In Nine, a long mirror behind eight brightly coloured wooden circles. A ninth, black circle encloses a gray painting of a diseased breast. The message in both pieces appears to be "Are you next?" Most women will probably leave the gallery, as I did, with psychosomatic breast pains and the resolve to start doing self-examinations on a monthly, if not daily, basis.

The two strongest pieces in the show are Jane Ash Poitras's Courage Blanket, and Donna Kriekle's video installation, If I Were To Need A Mastectomy... Poitras's piece juxtaposes newspaper articles on breast cancer plastered with what looks like dried blood, photos of survivors, and tombstone-like inscriptions to women who have died. On the back, a large chalkboard bears memorial messages from viewers of the show. Very few people passed this one dry-eyed; you can bet that if Poitras had designed the AIDS memorial, people wouldn't be picnicking under it.

But for sheer gut-wrenching impact, Kriekle's video takes the prize. It starts with soft, sensual images of hands, flowers and pearls caressing breasts, and babies nursing. Then comes a tray of surgical instruments, and before you can look away, you're watching a graphic, bloody mastectomy. Slowly the images shift to breast reconstruction surgery, rubber prostheses and healing scars, and finally a man's hands caressing a one-breasted woman. But despite Kriekle's attempt to end the tape on a positive note, it was the gory bits that stayed with me the longest.

The one thing missing from the show was any recognition of researchers' claims that lesbians are at higher risk for breast cancer -- or indeed, any acknowledgment of lesbian existence at all. But still, it's a powerful, disturbing and thought-provoking exhibition -- a column elsewhere on this site deals with some of the thoughts it provoked for me -- and well worth seeing.

See also my interview with Barbra Amesbury, and my reflections on the show.


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