Doreen Garner:The Remains
Garners sculptures give us a way to see and grapple with flesh made bare
January 19 – February 23, 2020
In the back room of JTT, held by subtle spotlights, there is a gathering of flesh: it is arranged package-like so that each side folds over to almost meet in the center, revealing a tender interior. This is Doreen Garner’s meditation on Black gender, a theorization that moves us toward multiple valences of enfleshment. In many ways the series—which includes After Her Tomb, After Her Harvest, After Her Flag, and After Her Womb (all 2020)—offers a continuation of Garner’s previous series, which have foregrounded the grotesque history of experimentation on Black women. We can even link these sculptures explicitly to Garner’s spring 2019 show at JTT, She is Risen, through the similarity in labels. In She is Risen, “harvest” referred to the cells taken from Henrietta Lacks’ cervix which spawned the HeLa cell line, while “flag,” “womb,” and “tomb” refer to Betsey and Anarcha, enslaved women who were surgically experimented on, in an effort to cure vesicovaginal fistula, by J. Marion Sims, who has since—though not without recent controversy—been referred to as the “father of gynecology.” By asking us to not only acknowledge, but to look, and to want to look, at this difficult history, we are, as Nicole Ivy writes, “implicated as witnesses to the unfolding history of a black woman made into a medical spectacle.”1
As much as The Remains traffics in these specific histories, it also asks us to consider this form of exploitation on the register of the mundane. Instead of names, we are given “her,” a possessive pronoun that could include any Black woman. This broadening has two immediate effects: it asks us to consider the quotidian nature of the relationship between Black women and trauma while also revealing how flesh can also act as a defensive mechanism.
Because this is flesh that is barely contained. The surgical staples strain at the seams of Garner’s foam and silicone constructions, and the epiderma glisten under the pull of surface tension. Tension, in turn, speaks to the complex power dynamics that assemble what we think we know about Black women, and Garner presents flesh as a protective cover while also revealing a bit of the vulnerable underside, activating a dynamic of repulsion and attraction. The surfaces are thick, excessive, leathery, and striated with fat and hair while the interiors are delicate, almost quivering under their sliver of exposure. Garner uses cilia, pearls, and other intricate textures in these spaces to index all that we cannot know—at least through a visual analysis—about Black women. In highlighting their appeal, we are, as Ivy suggests, implicated in this process of objectification, but Garner makes sure that these spaces are not left unguarded—giving us insight into the strength of Black women that is often overlooked in our fascination with the delicate and oft-exploited center.
Thinking with tension also allows us to think about the nature of Black women’s trauma. In the labels’ naming of each piece “after” a specific woman’s trauma, we are left asking whether or not representation itself is even possible after these practices of exploitation. What is left for Betsey, Anarcha, and Henrietta after so much of their literal interiority has been extracted? More broadly, however, the tomb, harvest, flag, and womb in question can all be traced to ongoing structures of racialized harm—some of which include medical experiments, forced sterilizations, but also murder and rape. Is “after” actually possible, or is it a reminder that much of Black life remains “in the wake” of slavery, stuck in a temporality that does not quite progress so much as exist in an endless present of grief and mourning, as Christina Sharpe has beautifully theorized.2 This form of temporal stasis also brings forth another way of reading Garner’s use of “after”: as a metaphor in which the original objects are lost to history and memory. But Garner’s sculptures give us a way to see and grapple with flesh made bare. In this way “after” suggests another mode of cover.
This dual use of “after” highlights the ambiguities of the flesh that Garner’s exhibit makes palpable. It also allows us a final play on tension as a Black feminist praxis, which Tina Campt describes as, “a tense of anteriority, a tense relationship to an idea of possibility that is neither innocent nor naïve. Nor is it necessarily heroic or intentional. It is often humble and strategic, subtle and discriminating. It is devious and exacting. It’s not always loud and demanding. It is frequently quiet and opportunistic, dogged and disruptive.”3 Campt’s invocation of an everyday form of refusal that understands its relation to violence but does not stay in that space resonates with Garner’s tense sculptures which attract, repel, and also menace with the power of flesh that is barely contained and full of heretofore unknown riches.
- Nicole Ivy, She is Risen, JTT Gallery notes: http://www.jttnyc.com/6953,6955,7334,240027.
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
Tina Campt, Listening to Images, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 17.