CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For her first institutional show within the US, artist and disability-justice advocate Sharona Franklin protests the impact of biohazardous waste under the nose of some of the world’s largest chemical companies. Franklin’s exhibition, part of the List Project series is an elegiac but dynamic rumination on biotech, pointedly installed within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s List Center for Visual Arts Center, just blocks away from the headquarters of pharmaceutical giants Moderna and Pfizer.
At the exhibition’s center is “Anti-Alpha Principles” (2022), a child-sized decomposable wicker casket adorned with decorative patterns made with a profusion of materials, including various grasses, flowers, metal washers, kidney beans, sunflower seeds, pills, and syringes, all framed by a concrete poem on a ribbon. “Anti-Alpha” is a life-saving treatment for autoimmune diseases. The needles and pills are Franklin’s, the waste from her daily treatment rituals, while the flowers have various healing properties. Encased in amber-hued gelatin, “Anti-Alpha Principles” is kept alive, but the blend of organic and inorganic materials slowly disintegrates in the gallery. As with the gelatin-based work in her 2020 exhibition, New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing at King’s Leap, the cacophony of materials composes a playful harmony, imbuing a sense of whimsy in this otherwise wistful work. Since the exhibition opened, the coffin’s top has partially collapsed, mold has spored across it, and the shape and surface will continue to change. The constant evolution of form and aesthetic mimics how our bodies are in continual flux, strained with time and our physical environment.
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Though Franklin, who lives with mobility impairment and chronic degenerative disease, relies on bioscience, “Anti-Alpha Principles” speaks to her fraught relationship with it. Medical advances come at a cost: scientific research produces biohazardous waste that impacts plant, animal, and human life alike, often causing the very conditions it’s created to treat. She conceived of this work as a “memorial” in celebration and commemoration of what is gained and lost with these advances.
Bracketing “Anti-Alpha Principles” are two found, repurposed church pews painted white and emblazoned with a concrete poem. One reads “BLOOM VERY RICH INTERNAL LIVES NOT UNLIKE OUR HUMAN CELLS … THE RATS AND MICE” in a font that recalls protest posters of the 1960s and ’70s. The pews’ placement calls for viewers to reflect on the casket between them, the inner life of the plant cells flourishing there, and how symbiotic human life is with the natural world. But we can’t meditate on that for too long: the benches are too hard to sit on for an extended period.
Text is sprinkled across the exhibition. Language becomes a sculptural material as Franklin playfully layers words, building meaning through their accumulation. For instance, in “ToxiDrug” (2022), at the exhibition’s entrance, “DRUG” is printed in red, serif type, with more complex, compounded words interchanged in front of it. Some of these words name or reference medications taken to treat various conditions; others are meaningless. Which ones are which is unclear, so the list is simultaneously a straightforward and vertiginous sci-fi index of substances that may or may not exist.
This dizzying approach is palpable throughout the compact exhibition, making it feel much larger than it is. For instance, installed on two shelves, four tawny yellow cobblestones contain myriad materials that seem to be fossilized within, including a fish, fake flowers, driftwood, red capsules, and metal hardware. These are examples of Franklin’s gelatins, encasing a confluence of the natural and artificial and fixing each particle in place. The cobblestones are from a work in progress, and ultimately are intended to be together, creating a grid of images, much like that of “Nest Egg for Transient Childhood” (2020), the only textile (and oldest) work on view. This egg-shaped pillow, outlined with an afghan-like fringe, has a patchwork of image and text, alluding to an Instagram grid and continuous accretion of image and text into meaning.
A black and white polka dot bow is fastened to the lower left, the only irregularly shaped item here. The bow reads to me as gendered female, and its inclusion takes on a new resonance at this moment, given that women’s autonomy over their own bodies is currently at stake. This poetic, powerful gesture, like the exhibition as a whole, considers the paradoxical cycles of harm and healing that institutions proffer, pondering the principles of so-called advancement.
List Project 24: Sharona Franklin continues at the MIT List Visual Arts Center (20 Ames Street, Bldg. E15, Atrium level, Cambridge, Massachusetts) through June 5. The exhibition was organized by Selby Nimrod, Assistant Curator, MIT List Visual Arts Center.