Imperfect Health provides societal health report

New Miller Gallery exhibit features thought-provoking pieces of social commentary

Laura Scherb Sep 16, 2012

The Imperfect Health exhibit at the Miller Gallery isn’t just art — it’s a collection of thought-provoking pieces that range from the ordinary to the wildly imaginative. The pieces are part of a strikingly relevant social commentary and a deafening statement about the future of the world that will resound with students from every major and discipline.

The exhibit, which opened last Friday, is focused on the medicalization of architecture, and urban and landscape design. It is curated by Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini, who are both architects and curators at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal, which organized the exhibit. The exhibit’s pieces question whether health is the responsibility of the individual or society through analysis of architecture and other cultural components.

According to the gallery guide, Pittsburgh’s main industries since its steel days have been health care and technology — two important aspects of the show’s major themes — making it an ideal city for the exhibit.

The project began as a way to study the effects that have resulted and will result in the future from the medicalization of all areas of society, but especially architecture. “Our goal with this exhibition is to investigate the backside and the gray zone that architects don’t want to speak about.... We’re examining the ideas of urbanism, efficiency, speed,” said Zardini, who came in with co-curator Borasi from Montréal to give a special tour of the exhibit.

“It’s hard to find something that hasn’t been embodied by humans,” Borasi said. “We’re studying and showing the unexpected consequences of work, like urbanization on nature for example. It’s just difficult to define, with a clear line, what is good and bad, and what is healthy and unhealthy right now for the future.”

The exhibit features a wide variety of art forms: plans for mass pork production, a paper sculpture that represents mad cow disease, photographs of green spaces in cities, video clips of trees, diagrams of cells, music videos against e-waste, infrared images of parks, toy figurines from the movie Wall-E, and visualizations of air toxins and dust particles.

Each floor of the three-story exhibit is themed. The first focuses largely on food production and agriculture, the second on green living in cities and urban development, and the third on physical health and aging.

“...Because our bodies are the only thing left to us. Years ago, we had the possibility of improving and making progress to share in our society. We had a collective hope for a better future. But now, the faith in the collective, the hope for a better future, has been lost. Mentally, we protect all that we have left,” Zardini said about the focuses of the exhibit.

A heavy emphasis on the future of architecture and, in a broader sense, society, gives the exhibit an almost futuristic feel. However, each floor features boxes on the wall that focus on a theme in the news, bringing it back to the present. The news themes include epidemics, obesity, allergies, asthma, cancer, and aging; the articles date from the 1920s to as recently as a few months ago. The staff will continue to update these boxes with current events as they occur.

Additionally, Borasi and Zardini have included the stairs and elevators in the exhibit. Zardini explained that the elevator is a prime example of the medicalization of architecture. Although it was originally created to make life easier both for those who have trouble going up and down the stairs and those who don’t, the elevator has now taken on a negative connotation.

“It’s now considered a way to enable obesity,” Zardini said. “And since personal health is now a public concern, architects are now trying to hide the elevators in their designs.”

The exhibit has been under construction since the summer, with student employees from all disciplines coming together to help get it up and running. While many students in design and art management are involved with the gallery, other majors and programs are represented as well.

Sophomore computer science major Eugene Scanlon was part of the tech crew that helped compile the exhibit’s technical features, including televisions, DVD loops, and projectors. “It’s a great exhibit to come to, because there’s so much interesting stuff. I think it’ll really help people think about things outside of their majors,” Scanlon said.

The exhibit is full of surprising details that give visitors a complete experience. For Friday’s event, the female student workers and staffers donned paper nurses caps, a small but clever nod to the nuances of the exhibit.

Overall the exhibit is clearly laid out, but is slightly overwhelming at times. The focus is extremely broad and dynamic, with futuristic architecture in one corner of a room, scientific research on domestic dust in another, and a study on aging in yet another. Walking through, it’s difficult to discern what exactly the curators’ message is. Without hearing firsthand the personal statements of the two curators, as visitors on Friday did, it may be nearly impossible to derive the exhibit’s sophisticated meaning.

There is a clear emphasis on architecture that winds throughout, however, as emphatically discussed by the curators: “The object of architecture should not be to find a cure or a solution [to the health and industry problems] that exist. It should be to propose something to take care of us,” Borasi said.

It’s challenging to meld the three themes of food production, urban planning, and health and aging into one project that has a cohesive thread, but the information presented is relevant and sobering. Whether or not you can synthesize an easy explanation from the exhibit, it will no doubt leave you with much to think about and new perspectives from which to regard everyday objects and events.

The exhibit is educational and analytic, and is perhaps best described as a societal, physical, and mental health report. Rather than showcasing theme-centered works of art, the exhibit invites critical thought by displaying scientific evidence pertaining to the present state of society and the possible consequences of trying to solve these problems.

“This was the hardest exhibit we’ve ever created,” Zardini said. “We don’t have a slogan or a quick thing we can give you to go and tell people about what you’ve seen here. You don’t walk out with a clear-cut conclusion, just a lot of things to think about.”