27 November, 2010

tuymans' diagnostic view

Since I began medical school, I have become increasingly interested in the way that medicine infiltrates the rest of the world, especially the arts. So, when I went to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, I was initially impressed by the Luc Tuymans exhibit, and then enthralled when I came to a series of paintings titled Der Diagnostische Blick. This is the name of a German diagnostic manual for physicians, which contains photographs of people with various diseases. The MCA had 4 paintings from this series on display: legs with eczema, a woman with anemia, a man with a facial droop, and a breast with signs of cancer.

The ideas behind these paintings, or rather, triggered by them, are pertinent not only to art but also to the practice of medicine. These images are based on photographs that were intended for instruction; therefore the people that posed for them are in fact insignificant, mere bodies. When Tuymans painted these images they lost all instructional value - his dabs of paint will not help me to recognize the defining characteristics of eczema. Yet the people are still reduced to mere bodies, maybe even less. Tuymans uses horizontal brush strokes, creating a distancing effect such that the viewer is unable to feel that he can understand what this person is thinking or feeling. Devoid of both life and instructional value, what is left?

In an interview Tuymans said, "I take all the ideas out of individuality and just leave the shell, the body." This is evidenced in his portrait of St. Ignacious Loyola, based on a photograph of the saint's death mask. Der Diagnostische Blick is also a series of de-individualized bodies. Now I must ask myself, when we diagnose people with an illness, do we leave their bodies behind as empty shells? Does that diagnosis reduce the body to another in a long list of bodies that could be photographed and placed in a diagnostic manual?  I think it is important that we  consider this, and what can be done to prevent it.

Another way to think about these paintings is not as a representation, but as an example of illness. These paintings, overlooking reality, are themselves lacking something vital. In so many areas of life it is easy to reduce a situation to a snapshot, forgetting to consider the whole person, overlooking the other people affected, or maintaining a very limited perspective on life. In fact, the evening I went to this exhibit I stepped onto the train worrying about whether or not I was doing all the "right" things for my future, and feeling a twinge of guilt for doing something fun. By the time I got to the museum I had completely changed my outlook on the world. As I saw all the people around me on the train, performers in the train station, urban bike-riders risking their lives on the daily trip home from work, I realized that I had reduced my world to a little bubble that surrounded only me and rarely floated outside of the school. For me, that is one of the wonderful things about art. It opens a whole new world to me and is a catalyst for me to consider how my own world fits into a much larger one.

Okay, I want to tell you about a few more paintings at this exhibit. First, another medical one:

The title of this painting is Lungs, and the placard states that it is an obscure view that most people would not recognize, since it is taken from the right side of the left lung, pressed up against the heart. Of course, if you are like me and happen to be studying anatomy you will be proud to recognize the main parts of the hilum: the bronchi, the pulmonary arteries and veins.... But then you might also miss the chance to think about the fact that Tuymans is a serious smoker. He says it is a part of his creative process and has no interest in quitting, but he certainly knows the damage he is doing to his own lungs.

Many of his paintings make striking political statements, from the concentration camps in Germany, Belgian Congo (Tuymans is Belgian), and the KKK, to Walt Disney, U.S. domestic idealism, and Condoleeza Rice. One of my favorites demonstrates a more intellectual aspect of his art that literally is completely unseen. In fact, I would have missed out on it all together if I hadn't been eavesdropping on a tour.

The title is Bridge. What makes it so fantastic is that it is a painting of a bridge in Baghdad, based on a photograph, which was a snapshot of a YouTube video, filmed and posted by a U.S. soldier in Baghdad.

This is the first full U.S. exhibit of Tuymans' works. If you have the chance to see any of his paintings, I highly recommend it. I am sure they will inspire much contemplation. If you are in the Chicago area, the MCA is free on Tuesdays! And, as always, I would love to hear what you think about it all.

25 November, 2010

muffins for moving

In my opinion, moving is one of the most unpleasant tasks one could ever have. Okay, so  I'm exaggerating but it really can be quite the ordeal. You have to pack up everything you own, all the meanwhile living in disarray. Then you must load all of that into a truck. Then you must move it into the new home. More disarray. All the lifting, packing and unpacking, arranging and rearranging... And how on earth are you supposed to eat properly when all of your utensils are hidden away and you fear that a full grocery bag will cause the pile of boxes on your kitchen counter to topple over.

I am so thankful for the people who helped me to move over the summer. Especially the friend who helped to fit everything into the U-haul like pieces of a puzzle. And the other who sent me off with a spanish tortilla for the road and enough blueberry muffins for almost a week's worth of breakfast. So, when somebody new moved into my apartment building I baked her some chocolate zucchini bread muffins. I must admit, part of my motivation was the image of a community where neighbors really do know one another and take turns hosting dinner parties, etc. Although all the people in our 7-unit building is friendly enough I don't really see that happening here.

These muffins have a good amount of nutrients from the zucchini, banana and whole wheat, and they have just enough chocolate that they could pass for breakfast, a snack, or dessert (especially with a glass of milk). Give them a try and let me know what you think - whether you have a new neighbor or not.

Chocolate Chip Zucchini Muffin Recipe:

1/2 c sugar
1/3 c canola oil
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
2 ripe bananas
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 c all-purpose whole wheat flour
2 T cocoa
1 T cinnamon
1 1/2 c grated zucchini (one medium-large zucchini)
1 handful chocolate chips

In a large bowl, beat the sugar and oil, then the egg and vanilla.
Add the bananas, mashing them separately first, or right into the bowl. I usually just use the end of the mixer.
Mix in all the dry ingredients.
Fold in the zucchini, and then the chocolate chips.

Pour into a muffin tin and bake at 350F for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick will come out clean.

08 November, 2010

the most beautiful song?

I have been loving this song and feel I must share it with you - if this doesn't convince you that we can create beauty, I don't know what will. For me, it is possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. When that woman's voice rises above the rest and spirals around, it is pure and intoxicating.

It was written by an italian composer, Gregorio Allegri. At some point this piece of music was protected from being transcribed or played outside of the Cistine Chapel for the Tenebrae service - doing so was punishable by excommunication. The story goes that in 1770 young Mozart heard the work and wrote it out from memory when he returned home. His transcription ended up in the hands of an englishman who published it in 1771. Rather than being excommunicated, Mozart was called to Rome and praised by the pope for his musical genius*. The ban was lifted and now it is the most commonly performed work for a cappella choirs.

Why would this song ever have been banned in the first place? Because it was so very beautiful. Perhaps people would hear this music and have a spiritual experience. That experience, of course could then be had anywhere they heard that music and open a personal pathway to a relationship with God. The church wanted to be sure that that type of communication could only occur with its guidance/control. There are other examples of music being avoided because of the belief that it insinuated evil, like the tritone.

Anyway, as interesting as all of that is, I'm not trying to make any big statement. I just want to share this amazing music that deeply touches my soul, no matter what sort of mood I am in.

*Other composers also transcribed it, and I believe there is quite the dispute about who got it right and whose version is the best. I first heard a recording by the Dale Warland Singers, so I think I'm stuck with my first love, but there are many recordings, both with adult and children's choirs.
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