Jesse Aron Green

View of “Jesse Aron Green: Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik,” 2015.

Jesse Aron Green’s 2008 multimedia installation Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik has been exhibited in parts at Tate Modern, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and ICA Boston, among other institutions. His current exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums, which runs through August 9, 2015, is the first time all sixty-five components—including photographs, prints, video, and sculpture—are being shown together.

ÄRZTLICHE ZIMMERGYMNASTIK is basically a workout video, so it’s no surprise that some people start to exercise in the gallery. Mirroring the thing in front of you—judging its scale and size against yourself—is fundamental to being with an artwork, or for that matter to being with other people. We’re all bodies. The exercises in the video component of this installation are drawn from an instructional book by a nineteenth-century German doctor, but the invisible center of my piece is really the doctor’s son, Daniel Paul Schreber, who lost his mind as a result of the abuse he suffered as a child. His experience of intense physical subjugation—being tied down in bed, strapped into a rigid chair to fix his posture, forced toward a bodily ideal—led him to reject the position he later held as a powerful lawyer and judge and instead identify with people who were considered powerless at that time whose bodies were believed to be different and inferior.

As a kid I was also subject to intense physical regimentation, although nothing close to what Schreber went through. I spent three hours a day, six days a week for ten years speeding in circles and hurling myself in the air as a figure skater. The real sticking point was the dissociation I felt competing in a context in which my worth was determined so externally to my self, and by such contradictory means. In figure skating, success is measured with two opposing metrics: a supposed objective one, in which points are given for the “cleanliness” with which you complete jumps and spins, and a subjective one, in which the “artistic merit” of your skating—its beauty—is adjudicated.

Thinking about achievement in this context—how bad it can feel to lose but also how ambivalent to win, how the capitalist concept of self-worth never matches up with the emotional complexity of being—became a useful analogue against which I could figure out how making art might be meaningful. It was in acquiring a language—both spoken and aesthetic—for describing difference that I began to see how ideologies of sickness and health were constructed, and how conceptions of care could apply to interpersonal and political relationships. Seeing the Guggenheim’s retrospective of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work when I was fifteen was the start of this understanding.

Recently I’ve had to reevaluate my own health and fitness. I got a little bit of cancer, now gone, and I elected to start taking PrEP—Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis—which are prescription drugs that help prevent people from becoming infected with HIV even if they are exposed to it. At the moment, PrEP is underadvertised, underprescribed, and subject to misinformation about its risks (which are very few) and effectiveness (which is very high). The people who take it in this country are the ones with resources to know about and access it. African American, Hispanic, Latino, and prison populations along with all people living in poverty continue to disproportionally contract HIV.

I was asked recently if the recent shifts in my health care have made me think about Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik differently, but they really haven’t. For me the project was always about sickness as much as health, and about being excluded for your lack of fitness as much as for the value of being fit. If one thing has changed it’s that the project has proved itself to have legs—it’s being shown and being added to a few good collections, which means that it will be cared for. I guess that’s supposed to confer legitimacy on the work, but experiencing such symbolic gain is not necessarily a feeling I value or enjoy, and I don’t think I ever will.