Crip*, installation at Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 2021. Photo by Della Perrone

By Jon L. Seydl, Museum Director


Upon entering the exhibition Crip* at Krannert Art Museum, you see three small brown mattresses resting on the floor, connected by a tangle of wires. Each is braced around its middle, propping the inflatable bedding up like a body. Yet these bodies slump, since there is no way that the braces can force the mattresses upright. As you puzzle out this work of art, it dawns on you that air is slowing moving in and out of each form, breathing, as they try to hold themselves up.

This struggle is at the heart of Askésis by Beatrice Olmedo, an artist who shapes prosthetics into pseudo-bodies. Her materials are medical devices, in this case alternating pressure mattresses (used in ICU and hospices to prevent bedsores) and back braces.

The title offers another clue to the work’s meaning, derived from a Greek word for exercise, describing stoic self-discipline leading toward improvement. With these sculptures, Olmedo comments on how medical devices are made to mold and sculpt bodies to conform them to a norm. And yet, the mattresses continually fail to become “normal” and upright, instead sagging towards their natural form, struggling to breathe, always drooping.

The work asks: Why do we divide bodies into normal and non-normal? Why do we make people with disabilities work so hard (or force them painfully) to appear less disabled? Why is self-discipline a burden placed disproportionally on disabiility?

Such are the kinds of questions posed by Crip*, which reframes the very idea of “disabled” through crip theory (many of you know the term “crip” as a reclaimed insult from the recent film Crip Camp). These artists reject the idea that disability needs to be defined against an idea of “normal,” something that keeps disability always on the outside looking in.

Moving beyond questions of accessibility (although the exhibitions has innovative experiments with many forms of access), Crip*’s curator Liza Sylvestre selected artists who see their experiences with disabilities as ways to generate new ideas and creative ways of looking at the world.

For instance, the artist Emily Gossiaux, who after becoming blind and developing hearing loss, began to reflect deeply on the way she relies on her other senses, and how memory plays such an important role in shaping her work.

The works on view at KAM are multisensory in that she depends on touch to make visual art — for example, with the handcrafted, papier-mâché sculpture of her service dog, London. The sculpture conveys her complex relationship connections with the dog, whom she has never seen, also reflecting on the nature of interdependence, a common theme among the artists in the exhibition. Gossiaux describes how the senses and memory connect in ways that are in fact enhanced by her disability, showing us what she has gained from her reliance on touch.