Santa Fe

Celia Rumsey

Plan B Evolving Arts

Many of the stories we tell about medicine have to do with acute situations, miracles performed in ERs and ORs, people on the verge of death brought back to life. But the more once-fatal conditions our technology allows us to survive, the more our problems tend toward the chronic rather than the acute. Celia Rumsey’s sculptural installation “Chronic,” which inaugurated Plan B (formerly the Center for Contemporary Arts), documented her lifelong medical condition. The wonder here is that Rumsey, who was hospitalized with diabetes by the age of three, should make something so grippingly lovely out of so much pain.

Rumsey built a temporary room close to the entrance of a large, somberly lit gallery. From the outside, its structure—raw lumber struts and plywood—was plainly visible. The entrance to this body turned inside-out was a chintzy aluminum door, of the kind common to patios. The space’s interior was a narrow, hyperreal medical room harshly lit with fluorescent lights. At the far end of the room, in a metal crib with chipped white paint, rested a delicate yet weighty artifact: a baby’s butt sculpted from pink alabaster. The story began here, behind bars, with a sick child’s experience of the trauma of modern healing.

This claustrophobic chamber felt as though the voice of William S. Burroughs’ Dr. Benway might come thundering in at any moment. Both too long and too high, the space (laid out by architect Suby Bowden) amounted to a subtly realized nightmare: shelter turned into confinement. The story of Rumsey’s condition was elaborated in wall texts and three-dimensional objects. There were cast-aluminum bones, one of which is titled Replacement, 1996; on a shelf rested four little pink-veined alabaster toes and one big toe of dark gray soapstone; a long steel tube with a razor-blade tip mounted over a glass slide with a drop of bloodred nail polish is entitled Blood Test, 1995. There were twenty-six plaster fingers and a white hand holding a syringe like a dart. Meat Bed, 1995, a piece of rock the shape and color of liver resting on a tiny metal bed, is at once intensely specific and broadly meaningful, a wake-up call to the specialist mindset that sees an organ rather than a human being as the target of treatment.

In contrast to these objects stood the well-worn index cards that papered one side of the room. The cards, one for each week during the three years (1993 to ’95) that Rumsey spent crafting the installation, contained notations on blood-sugar level and other data made four times a day. The records gave no hint of the imaginative work occurring simultaneously; their relentless banality served as a backdrop against which the emotionally charged, handcrafted sculptures reverberated.

Rumsey’s installation took the viewer from Vocabulary of a Three-Year-Old, an inchoate alabaster form mounted as a trophy, to a 1997 photograph in which the artist bares her torso, now equipped with tube and pump: from uncomprehending baby to bionic woman. Finally, at the back of the “Chronic” chamber, the larger part of the gallery was set up like an abandoned schoolroom. An artificial limb leaned on a chair at the head of the ghost class. Rumsey’s installation wasn’t sanitized for the classroom; it exhibited the honesty and courage required to negotiate the fear, anger, and frustration of a condition that can only be alleviated, never cured.

MaLin Wilson