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Anne Teahan explores the work of Washington-based artist Gwynneth VanLaven in Revealing Culture at the Smithsonian and interviews her about waiting rooms and ‘Wellness’ / 13 July 2010

A black and white photo of a young woman with a line running through it titled 'misunderstood'

Gwynneth VanLaven: Misunderstood

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Gwynneth VanLaven’s installation ‘Please Wait’, in ‘Revealing Culture’ is deceptive. From a distance, it looks like a nice little space in the middle of the exhibition, where the tired visitor can sit down and rest.

Inside, you find yourself in a waiting room – but not some well-used NHS space where people have paced and fretted. This one is pristine with pure white walls, three identical chairs, a square coffee table (with no rings) and an unworn carpet. This could be a room from a furniture catalogue. Two neatly framed photos on the wall show pictures of other waiting rooms.

But once seated, you realise that this space is not so neutral after all. On the opposite wall a flat screen runs a film called ’13 Swallows’. A young woman raises a glass of water to her moistened lips and washes down a series of pink, white and purple pills one by one. Her ritual is repeated many times. Sometimes we see through the base of the raised glass up to the face of the swallowing girl. Each round is punctuated by rhythmic sounds: the glug of poured water followed by a gulp. And not for the first time in this hot city, with my unquenchable thirst and dry throat, I am tantalised by the sound and sparkle of water.

In one corner of the waiting room, sits a curious object, half pot-plant, half lamp. On closer inspection I see plastic pill-bottles, placed round the plant like Christmas-tree lights; each one has a tiny label with an intriguing array of names, all of which are variations on the artist’s.

As I sit in VanLaven’s waiting room, I wonder about the nature and function of her space. Am I waiting for a psychiatrist or a physician? Do I wait in hope or anxiety? Have I come for investigation, for routine chemical maintenance or emotional adjustment? And after consulting the unnamed doctor or specialist, will I take my pills and feel as neutral and untroubled as the bland white walls?

As the swallowing of pills proceeds on screen, I examine a remarkable book which sits on the coffee table in place of the usual lifestyle magazines. Like a children’s game of consequences, each page is sliced into three flaps which you can mix and match. On the left hand side, text describes episodes from the artist’s early life: on the right, images of the artist’s face make varied expressions. The visitor can play with the pages to create new meanings and facial expressions: some baffling, some highly comic. This Waiting Room seems to merge childhood and adult experience.

Gwynneth VanLaven is a 30 yr old artist, based near Washington. We meet at the Smithsonian’s Ripley Gallery and settle down together inside her installation, which turns out to be the perfect interview space – we have comfy chairs, the quiet of the gallery and we are enclosed by her work.

Gwynneth gives a fascinating hour long interview (to be published later this year on DAO). My questions, on the relationship between Disability and her Art, lead us to explore the twin themes of ‘Illness’ and ‘Wellness’ which run through her work. Her Revealing Culture catalogue statement, perfectly describes how medical autobiography and political critique are embedded in her ‘Please Wait’ installation:

‘I have spent so many years in waiting rooms being ‘patient’, hoping for answers, waiting for the Wizard of Oz to complete me. I waited for health, feeling deficient in the face of glossy, idyllic images of wellness drawn from our market-driven culture. Through the installation of a waiting room, I hope to reveal something about the culture of wellness, medical authority, the way we perform as patients, and how seemingly innocuous spaces can become charged with memory and emotion.’

Advertising – especially of pharmaceuticals - and the way it feeds on false and idealised images of health and perfection is a key theme in Gwyneth’s Art.

For me the interview confirms a recurrent message of this Disability Arts exhibition: that artists who tackle the complex difficulties of overcoming barriers and managing the effects of impairment, will often have a deeper, sharper take on universal themes. The humour and bitter-sweet irony which runs through Gwynneth’s work, is nourished by real and raw experience.
In her own words: ‘In my work, I hope to complicate what has become flat, to flesh out experience with a dose of reality…’

Interview to be published as part of ‘Sharing Cultures:Disability and Visiblity’ on DAO this year.

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