Many artists travel to Italy to study and gain inspiration from the painting, sculpture and architecture of the old masters.
It wasn’t the work of Michelangelo or Leonardo that drew sculptor and installation artist Cristin Millett to Italy for the first time in 1995. Millett was pulled by an interest that was more, well, corporeal.
From the cities of Padua to Bologna, Millett examined anatomical waxes, anatomy theaters and old-time versions of modern medical practice dummies in an attempt to explore her fascination with medical history, sexuality, reproduction and the human body — in particular, historical perceptions and stereotypes of the female body.
The result of Millett’s research and work is now on display at the University of Maine’s Lord Hall gallery in “Teatro Anatomico: Spectacle of the Anatomy Theatre,” an exhibit that includes Millett’s three-part anatomy theater installation, as well as seven smaller sculptures.
Underneath the sexuality of Millett’s work are some less-sexual contexts. “Teatro Anatomico” is an examination of the relationship between architecture and power. It explores the ways in which art and medicine are related. And it deals with the richness of Italian art.
Still, those concepts are communicated through molds of male and female genitalia, old-time gynecological devices, and video snippets of the body’s sexual response. A word of caution: Nothing is pornographic, but some of the concepts and images might elicit questions from youngsters.
University of Maine art professor and Lord Hall curator Laurie Hicks is aware of the potential reaction to such a show held in a space which usually hosts more staid exhibits.
But Hicks wanted Millett’s work for several reasons, including an attempt to do something different in the gallery.
“When I curate or select shows I look for diversity in what I’m trying to do,” she said. “It doesn’t mean all of [the exhibits] will be controversial. It’s just that art is all these things. Art is precious, beautiful objects, and it’s things that push at us. I want to show that diversity.”
Millett’s work does a lot of pushing. It forces the viewer to put himself or herself in the place of someone undergoing a surgical procedure. It allows the viewer to experience offering up a body part in sacrifice. It makes the viewer choose a gender on a real Florida balloting machine Millett purchased on eBay.
“It’s about implicating the viewer which is an important thing for installation artists, so that looking at art is not a passive experience,” said Millett, who taught at UMaine from 1997 to 2001 and is now at Penn State. “You become involved in the art as a viewer.”
Millett became interested in medicine as a listener, however, growing up in a family of medical professionals for whom medical issues were regular subjects of discussion around the dinner table. Years later, when Millett was in graduate school, she realized mealtime conversations about cancer were a bit unusual. She started to study medical history, specifically obstetrics and gynecology, and began making sculpture out of household items, with a twist of dark humor — a wine bottle opener, for example, became a speculum.
Those studies took Millett to Italy, where she saw wax forms of human body parts, and obstetrical practice dummies in a museum at the University of Bologna.
Her work also led her to the city of Padua, the location of what is said to be the oldest surviving anatomy theater in the world. The theater is the interior of a building, in which the floors were removed to create a funnel-like space with viewing balconies looking down at an operating table. Autopsies were performed there for doctors, students and others curious about the internal workings of the human body.
On her first trip to the anatomy theater, Millett was allowed to stick her head through the hole where a cadaver was placed, and had the unusual experience of looking up at all the viewing balconies. She was allowed to stand where a doctor might have stood to perform a procedure. And she went to the top of the theater and looked down on the surgical table, as if she was a student.
“I’ve gone to anatomy theaters throughout Europe and the U.S. but in that particular one, I became very aware of the history, and I started thinking about how many bodies had been dissected in that space and how many people had occupied that space to watch a dissection,” she said. “For me, the most important thing in that particular space was how architecture can really affect power relationships. Where you are located in a space can impact your position.”
The central piece of Millett’s work in Lord Hall is “Teatro Anatomico,” an installation about 19 feet by 22 feet in diameter and made up of three distinct exhibits within the whole.
The installation includes 49 chiffon panels hanging on stainless steel pipe that form an ellipse. The viewer is meant to enter the ellipse and follow the panels, on which are printed railings, similar to those in the Padua balconies, and images over time of the female reproductive system and particularly erotic or titillating images from art history.
At the center of the ellipse, the viewer finds the second part of “Teatro Anatomico” — a surgical table, on which are projected video clips of a nude woman. As the video slowly proceeds, the body is seen covered in a clear surgical wrap, and then the image of a surgical procedure — an abdominal hysterectomy, Millett said — fades in and then out. The clear wrap disappears and the video starts over again.
The key to this part of the exhibit is a video camera aimed where the viewer stands. The camera projects the face of the viewer onto the area of the table where the nude body’s own head would be.
Above the table is the third part of the exhibit. It’s a chandelier form, made of cast aluminum and cast vinyl in the shape of crystals. The design is elaborate, and something one might imagine would appear in Italy, until Millett explains the design is actually meant to replicate the female reproductive system.
The overall effect is similar to what Millett experienced in Padua. The viewer can watch everything unfold standing in front of the chiffon panels with their printed railings. When standing over the image of the nude woman, the viewer is put into the position of a doctor performing surgery. And if the viewer stands in the right place, he or she becomes the patient.
“I want you to be looking at the procedure but also realize you’re the person receiving the procedure, and to potentially be in the position of the doctor,” Millett said. “The anatomy theater allows you to do that.”
The rest of Millett’s work in the Lord Hall show is on a smaller scale, but no less powerful and confrontational, with more of her dark sense of humor.
“Sexuality in our culture is so taboo and for me, confronting this in my own work makes me more comfortable with the subject and understand historically where we’re coming from,” Millett said. “I’m trying to do it in a way that’s sometimes funny and sometimes beautiful, and that maybe people will start thinking about it.”
“Teatro Anatomico: The Spectacle of the Anatomy Theater” will be open until March 20. The Lord Hall Gallery, which is located on the first floor of Lord Hall on the UMaine campus, is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. The exhibition is free and open to the public.