Sculpture as Medicine at IMSS

For a Full list of courses taught, please see my Curriculum Vitae.

Sculpture as Medicine: Fetishes, Physiological Spaces, and Healing Actions

holistic_structures.jpgPlease visit the site for this educational project at

The work from Fall 2007 and 2008 classes will be exhibited at the
International Museum of Surgical Science
from October 31, 2008-January 9, 2009.

A Course for Caring
Gabriel Bizen Akagawa

“Would someone give me a hug?” asked Maliea Croy to a room of ten people. One person stood up and they embraced, activating a mechanism which emited hysterical laughter, resonating through the studio for seven uncomfortable seconds. This was Maliea’s response to an assignment to produce a work that inhibits or enhances communication considering a psychological state or condition. She dismantled a thrift store toy to use the pressure-activated component in this performed event. Maliea explained she had forgotten the piece in her backpack, it was activated by the pressures of her books and the motion of the subway on her way to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A variety of emotions were displayed and felt during the twenty-minute ride on the EL and class.

Sculpture as Medicine: Fetishes, Physiological Spaces, and Healing Actions was a course designed to investigate how studio art changes when it has a medicinal function. Initially, students were asked to define the terms medicine and art. This monumental task exemplified the primary focus of the course—perception. Art and medicine are far reaching and fluid practices that carry a great deal of power and responsibility to them. The course provided tools for the artist to expand and define their relationship to these fields. Medicine was determined to not necessarily be a physical drug that changes one’s state from ill to well, but rather a term that provided a direction for some types of art, or a lens through which to look at art.

One could easily look at a mound of silver-wrappered candy, “Untitled” (Lover Boys), by Felix Gonzalez-Torres as a medicinal work where the viewer ingests the physical representation of the artist and his partner. We are transformed by this experience. They pass through our thoughts as the sweet dissipates from our pallet. It may be more difficult to think of Burger King’s Whoppers as a medicine as recent commercials suggested when customers show violent outrage at the mere suggestion that the whoppers had been discontinued from the menu. We are customers who know what we want and need. What is medicine if not a drug to make us feel better?

Medicine is an unstable phenomenon in contemporary society. Health (care) is not necessarily a human right. The pharmaceutical industry suggests through commercials that patients “ask your doctors” for the latest restless leg medication. Veterans and by-standards of wars have high survival rates, but live with brain injuries and amputations that change their physical and social identities. Pandemics, pollutants, climate changes, cancers, and chemicals in toys all change our perception of whether we have the power to maintain our health, or if it is being determined for us. We are a society that is both overmedicated and in desperate need of medicine.

Final Critique at the Base Space, Fall 2007, photo’s by Gabe

Anne Chino created a corset that forces one’s posture into the bent back of an elderly person. She created this work to force the viewer to empathize with the discomfort and to confront her own fear of growing old by realizing it in body. Tara Mullaney proposed a design for a living wall of Philodendron to produce an alternative way of delineating space while oxygenating and purifying the air. Julia Hauben decided to transpose her lifelong relationship with homeopathy into a work by capturing spiders and creating habitats for them in test tubes. She documented the entire process detailed in two full notebooks. Her spiders phobia was transcended in a surprising finale when she wept for the spiders who died. This work brought to surface a question of how we could weep for anthropomorphized animals, while we have become numb to staggering statistics of the deaths of people.

This course presented a practice of medicinal attention and action lacking in many realms of career-driven society. Its goal is to nurture students’ works and to provide them with time, space and ideas of how to care about their own work in content and craft. On the last day of class, the students prepared a mock-exhibition of their work that is to be shown at the International museum of Surgical Science in Fall of 2008. They brought a pot-luck of their personal comfort foods. I, Gabriel Bizen Akagawa, the teacher, performed one of my own medicinal works by giving the students hand, head and neck massages. This work is an essentializing of the physical nature of my sculptural practice as well as an embodiment of techniques passed down from my grandparents’ in Tokyo.