Shirley Klinghoffer honors breast cancer patients with CRT Revisited
When author Peggy Orenstein was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of thirty-five, five years before the generally accepted age to begin annual mammogram screenings, she did what most people who contract a potentially life-threatening disease would do: She began a treatment regimen. In addition, she turned to books to glean some understanding of her condition. What she discovered as she perused bestsellers in the health sections of bookstores, however, was a thinly veiled shaming of people who suffer from disease because of a presumption that their lifestyles and lack of emotional well-being are at the root of what ails them. By way of examples, she wrote in a New York Times Magazine article, “Breast Cancer at 35: A Diary of Youth and Loss” that “Bernie Siegel writes, ‘There are no incurable diseases, only incurable people’ and ‘happy people generally don’t get sick.’ Louise Hay claims that cancer returns when a person doesn’t make the necessary ‘mental changes’ to cure it. Those are tidy ideas, placing the onus of the illness on the ill and letting the healthy off the hook.” But the truth is, healthy people do get sick and, like everyone else, they eventually die. It’s that fragility that prompted Santa Fe artist Shirley Klinghoffer to begin a project that premiered at the Central Fine Arts Gallery in New York in 1999 in the exhibit CRT – 0981. The installation comprised 18 slumped glass sculptures made from molds of women going through conformal radiation therapy. Seven years later, Klinghoffer, too, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“In the ’90s, before I experienced radiation therapy, I did gather wonderful testimony from women going through treatment and one of my biggest sources was Peggy Orenstein,” Klinghoffer told Pasatiempo. Orenstein’s testimony is included in a 35mm video projection called Voices, part of CRT Revisited, which opened in May at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “I envisioned the project and facilitated the partnership between the museum and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. We’re partnering to do a community outreach program, bringing art, science, and health issues for discussion.”
The forms in CRT Revisited are thin and fragile glass torsos and breasts of women at moments when they were at the mercy of the medical establishment, poked and prodded, prostrate in a machine that delivers directed beams of radiation to affected areas of the body. “Most women pick a time and show up five days a week. You literally see the same women coming at the same times. You feel so exposed. Every day
new faces come down and your breasts are exposed, your body’s exposed. You get to the point where you feel like an object being examined. Of course, you’re grateful that these people are there for you and you’re being attended to. I can’t say that this isn’t something everybody who ends up in the hospital goes through. Anybody who’s been put in one of those garments that tie in the back knows you immediately feel vulnerable. The idea was to capture that moment of extreme vulnerability.”
Each sculpture is made from slumped sheets of glass an eighth of an inch thick. When the sculptures were displayed for the first time in New York, they were placed facedown on a reflective surface, which had the effect of making them appear to levitate. “In my work, everything is symbolic. The levitating is supposed to symbolize the hope.”
Klinghoffer created the pieces at UrbanGlass in New York using toxic, heat-resistant molds. “I protected myself, but I did use material that could be carcinogenic in the process. There’s a lot of irony involved in that and the fact that my life imitated my art years later.” The molds were placed in a high-temperature kiln where the glass was heated to liquid form. “The only control I had was to see if it had slumped down to where I wanted it before putting it on the cooling or annealing cycle. When we did the cooling cycle — very slow, overnight — it left me breathless in the morning in anticipation as to whether we would have a whole piece. There was always the chance I would find something fractured. Miraculously, they all survived.”
Klinghoffer also began an intensive, weeklong residency in the museum’s hot shop in late May to realize a second, related project called Healing Objects. Klinghoffer asked individuals and families to share their stories of battling cancer and to send in images of objects that helped to comfort and sustain them during their struggles. These objects served as inspiration for a series of glass charms Klinghoffer made in the shop. She hopes to present the charms in an installation where they’ll be linked together as an expression of shared experience.
Klinghoffer’s works explore issues surrounding gender roles and femininity, often by incorporating casts of sexual organs and breasts to call attention to the objectification of female bodies. Witty in Pink from 2006, for instance, is a bronze dome made from cast nipples surrounded by gauzy pink fabric, a wry take on the notion that womanhood is defined by culturally determined parameters, the color pink being associated with the feminine. The explicitness of the sculpture suggests, too, the demystification of the female body and, because of its multiplicity of forms cast from the breasts of different people, the diversity of the female sex.
Her work often involves a twist or contrasting element. The Love Armor Project from 2007-2008, a collaboration with artist Sarah Hewitt, which included the participation of more than 70 artists from around the country, involved knitting a massive cozy for a Humvee M1026: a war machine covered by a textile made using what has traditionally been viewed as a woman’s craft. The intention was to express concern for military personnel as well as civilians then inhabiting conflict zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. “When I did Love Armor, I had never knit anything before. It was a challenge, but the idea of knitting spoke to me about concern and compassion. In the case of the
CRT series, the idea of making these forms from thin skins of glass was my challenge. A couple of the pieces were shown in a gallery in Houston. When the gallery director saw them, he said ‘My God. This could be shattered in an instant,’ and that’s the point: that life can be shattered in an instant.”
“Shirley Klinghoffer: CRT Revisited” runs through Oct. 11 at the Museum of Glass (1801 Dock St., Tacoma, Washington, 253-284-4750).
Shirley Klinghoffer and Sarah Hewett: Love Armor, 2007-2008, hand-knit cozy for a Humvee M1026; top from left to right: Shirley Klinghoffer: Legacy I (detail), 2006, crocheted yarn and giclée print on canvas; Secret Garden (detail), 2010, vintage skirt, cast rubber, and barbed wire; Bridal Bouquet for Gertrude & Alice, 2011 (detail), refashioned bridal gown, tinted translucent rubber, and steel; opposite page, above: Witty in Pink, 2006, bronze and antique tulle; CRT-0981, 1999, slumped glass installation