A hospital is its own world. A site separated from its environment, where movement into it and inside it is controlled and supervised. It is a complex system that works round the clock, without pause. A space that lacks any identity, replicable, differentiated from the outside world. An ex-territory of diversion and correction, of normalization and aberration.
Hospitals are generally non-personal institutions. Bastions of bureaucracy. Divided into departments that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of certain limbs or systems in the human body, broken down to its parts and dissected into organs mobilized to various wards, specialists, medical and para-medical treatments, diagnosis and imaging labs, supply units, and auxiliary medical units.
It is a hierarchical institution where those entering leave their independence at its doors, hoping it converts to assurance – a hope that relies on the professional and ethical authority of its trusted staff, the men and women of the medical and administrative personnel.
It is a place of progress. A place where scientific research is applied in practice, where we humbly cede our bodies to the meticulousness of knowledge – with the tacit concession of every aspect of ourselves that exceeds it.
“Hyper-Intention” is Jasmin Vardi’s first solo exhibition, the culmination of a years-long investigation into the impact of mental and physical trauma. In her work, Vardi blurs the boundaries between presence and absence, dealing with the practices of management, control, and use of institutional power over the individual.
The exhibition centers on a multichannel video installation presenting therapeutic environments and various applications in the medical world – an empty OR, ready for action, a closeup shot of a simulated surgery on a grape, executed by a robot, roaming the hyperbaric unit, moving across corridors that hold the gateways into a fantastical utopia – and the exits from it. All these operate within an enclosed, circuitous space, one promising physical recuperation and concluding with an outer-body experience. A mystical transcendence found within surgical intervention.
The hospital arena presented to us by Vardi is ultramodern and sterile. Her hospital includes neither patients nor staff. Its gleaming halls are devoid of people. Position holders, every man and woman, fulfill their duties in the institutions day-to-day affairs – patients, maintenance staff, medical staff – all are absent. Vardi’s hospital setting is an empty system, one devoid of a living soul, an abstract entity. As such, the hospital experience designed by Vardi lingers on the corporeal border to hint at the possibilities beyond it. The institution, stripped of its extremities, now invites us to also leave our corporal selves behind. To linger in the ether.
Yet, as our stay here is protracted, so does the promise of the body’s expansion become ever-more disturbing. It threatens to deteriorate into the truly terrifying. The moving hospital images encircle us without a single figure to latch onto or identify with, making the absence of the body and generally transparent practices exquisitely evident: management, control, and force over the individual body.
The institutional model presented by Vardi is comprised of video footage taken in various hospitals throughout the country, particularly new wards typified by “patient-oriented” architecture. In other words, these are wards and hospitals built with the awareness of the alienation felt by many crossing its threshold (as patients or visitors) and the need to provide some solutions. It seems the architectural paradigm this model is founded on for contemporary hospitals combines both hotel and shopping mall. And when these are your standards, no wonder these institutions stop orienting themselves towards “patients”, now focusing on “medical service consumers”. The capitalist discourse cannot abide a space that does not acknowledge it, and from the moment it invokes its rules on the medical world, so does medicine become a business, and medical treatment is transformed into a product. Herein lies the health services market.
As the hospital is a naturally delineated ecological system, a warren of corridors and passageways from the moment you enter until it ejects you out, so is the gallery divided into various transitional spaces. The outcome simulates the movement in a hospital structure: a place of pain without memory, a self-enclosed autonomous space functioning according to a codex of rules and regulations.
At the entrance to the gallery space stands a screen showing continuous motion across the vacant corridors of deserted departments. Waiting chairs, inpatient beds and treatment rooms are desolate. There are no screams, sighs or moans, no secretions, grey faces. No hollow gazes of patients or strained and stressed medical staff squinting with tension and fatigue or worried family members. Everything is clean and bright. The camera slides from ward to corridor, passing along the silent medical equipment. The ceiling is covered with glowing photographs of branches on a sky backdrop. If we just raise our gaze, we can imagine for a moment that we are looking at the real heavens, the winds of the earth swirling above us – rather than the waiting room of an internal medicine department, facing acrylic plates lit with LED lights, sitting under the vents of a centrally-monitored air conditioning system. Trees are also a recurring theme on the walls, and artificial plants dot the area. The more there are, the more artificial they appear.
Another room shows a screening of a trauma room, empty and waiting for action. Monitors stand alongside a ventilator, EKG and portable X-Ray, ultrasound, and defibrillator. All these machines, so familiar to us from endless television dramas, are no longer perceived purely as work tools, but as wonderous devices capable of facing even death itself. Vardi implies this through her writings: providing instructions of movement and control with sales promotion language, with New Age speak. Ostensibly, the difference between these subtitles and all this high-tech machinery is the difference between emergency medicine and mysticism for the masses. In fact, insinuates Vardi, in our consciousness the two merged long ago.
From departments and waiting rooms, Vardi then moves us to a double channel video presenting the hyperbaric unit. Hyperbaric treatment is based on high-pressure oxygen encompassing patients in closed chambers. The technology itself has been used for decades, but this has recently become a medical fad, with many believing it can improve blood circulation in the brain, rejuvenate skin cells, and boost cognitive abilities. Consequently, it’s no surprise that alongside Alzheimer or necrosis patients one can also find professional athletes, celebrities, and other world dignitaries. The fact that hyperbaric treatment has yet to be scientifically established as effective doesn’t make a dent in demand.
The sound accompanying the entire installation, and particularly Vardi’s use of low frequencies – often on the very edge of human hearing – is enhanced when faced with the double video of the hyperbaric unit. The sound reverberates from the walls and compresses the air. It’s physical impact batters the human body, seemingly replacing the heightened oxygen pressure. The sensory overload sends vibrations throughout the body, a subtle reminder of mechanical violence.
This indication of mechanical violence (even when conveyed in decidedly other forms) is also the mood evident in another screen: a bright red surface with a phone presenting video documentation of the da Vinci Surgical System in a profoundly impressive demo as it sutures a grape. Controlled by a surgeon, it utilizes robotic arms to operate surgical implements and a camera. Just as human contact slowly disappears, becoming ever-more mediated, so is the gaze increasingly diminished. It reaches across a growing number of optical devices. The camera on the robotic arm transmits images to the surgeon, and from there to a telephone, further relayed by Vardi by photography. These layers of distance stand at the heart of Vardi’s sophisticated display: even the grape is far enough removed from us that we cannot feel threatened by the act of surgery, free to take in the enormity of technological accomplishment.
On the adjacent wall, preposterously larger that the tiny grape, Scandinavian landscapes can be seen. Through the camera lens, exhibition viewers drift momentarily in snowcapped peaks, hovering over sun-drenched lakes in a virginal white sky. The panorama is breathtaking, almost too good to be real, so utterly incongruous with the humming and growling buzz of machines. It seems that, for just an instant, we have attained the promise of an outer-body experience. It seems we are purified, we have transcended our mortal selves. And yet, the acrylic tiles lit with branches and skies in waiting rooms only remind us that the gaze is not our own; it is a mechanized eye, a camera lens positioned in a drone. Again, mediation displays the power to open up vistas to our view only to once more remind us of the limits inherent in our body (and its gaze).
Hyper-Intention is a mental disorder of people who have failed to materialize their goals as the intensity of their intentions sets them up for failure. It is a self-fulfilling prophetic anxiety – a desire so compacted that it has the force to obliterate everything but itself, including any possibility of its realization.
The desire to believe, be healed and find salvation all drive is to succumb to surgical intervention. To be unburdened and taken apart. To hand ourselves over to the trusty practices of oversight and supervision. To be stripped of our own bodily control. To abandon ourselves to the mercies of a sterile, orderly, faceless hospital.
The room will be white and blinding. The smell acrid and surprising. Someone will tell us to count to ten.