Sick and Tired at the Met

a screen capture of a Google culture virtual exploration of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is is a rather blurry and strangely double-exposed image. The score reads: Use the Metropolitan Museum of Art's search engine to visit with works "On Display" that show up in searches for "sick" and "tired."
The text in the above image reads: Use the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s search engine to visit with works “On Display” that show up in searches for “sick” and “tired.”

Notes on My Enactment of the Sick and Tired Score 

On October 5th, 2019 I took a 22,000 step tour across the Metropolitan Museum of Art in search of all objects that appeared under two separate search queries of their online collection using the terms “sick” and “tired.” While many states of agony and despair as well as triumph and ecstasy are represented in the Met’s collection, I was curious about the chronic sickness and fatigue on display. Sickness is generally regarded in Western medical practice as something that shows itself via symptoms in the otherwise healthy subject and is treated in relation to that visibility either on the body or in x-rays, blood tests, genome sequencing, or other forms of lab work. Burnt out from investigating my own diagnosis-avoidant chronic illness mostly through online searches, spreadsheets, and open tabs, I wanted to explore how a museum, one of the main physical structures of Western visual art practice, diagnoses and treats sickness in its own collection. 

Discovering a museum collection’s relationship with sickness based solely on typing “sick” into its online catalog is akin to late-night searches on WebMD. Both searches immediately produce results, as search engines, unlike the humans on their receiving end, are built with maximum efficiency and economy in mind. While my body may take days or weeks to respond to a new health regimen or medication, an online search instantly provides its results and recommendations. This barrage of data served via online searches is anxiety-inducing; it creates a rift between the unaffected inhuman diagnoser and the person on the receiving end of this information who responds to it in real-time, location, and body. My online search of the Met’s collection instantly spat out 38 results for sick spanning thousands of years and miles; from painted representations of the sick to objects used in healing or thwarting sickness, to an ornamental 19th-century German silver box made by Johann Christian Sick.

Wanting to visit with each of the 38 sick objects in my tour, I went from room to room based on the “most relevant” search results as opposed to a geographical order that might have saved me time and distance. Much like treating and tracking a chronic condition, I traversed the same rooms over and over, approaching from different angles and entrances. A long exposure of my journey through the Met would reveal how inefficient my paths were. Are museums meant to be efficient though? And if so, what are they efficiently doing? The average time spent with an artwork at a museum is around half a minute- with a mean of 17 seconds- meaning that works now offer themselves with extreme efficiency to keep up; like search engine results brought to life in a physical space.

This collapse of digital and physical space in both directions is common to today’s experiential discovery grounds, where so often physical exhibitions now seem specifically engineered to be photographed and disseminated in digital space. Digital space offers perceived endlessness and frictionless replication that inhabitation of a finite physical ecosystem, like a planet or a body, cannot compete with. Several works thought to be “On Display” by the search engine were actually inaccessible in the museum, hung in rooms that had been inexplicably roped off with the lights dimmed. This repose felt like a tacit acknowledgement of how hard the works of art, and by extension, their subjects, keepers, and witnesses, were working. It also pointed to a discrepancy between the museum collection’s physical reality and its categorization process. Only visiting the museum that day would have allowed this narrow glimpse inside these twilit rooms and the subsequent mixture of disappointment and elation of being denied the opportunity to see a search engine’s slick diagnoses fully materialize in physical space.

Almost half of the objects located under “sick” had no direct reference to sickness or healing in the title or description, leaving me curious about the metadata or hidden attributes that dictated their location in my search. For instance, the 15th-century painting Madonna and Child with Saint Joseph and an Angel (fig. 1) by Raffaellino del Garbo makes no reference to sickness in either its title or description or the figures represented in the painting; though the description does note the actual deteriorating condition of the painting itself, stating “The losses in flesh tones on the Virgin’s face have revealed the green underpainting below.” Green, as the 1970s pediatrician-invented Mr. Yuck poison sticker exemplifies, indicates sickness when mapped to the human flesh. 

My image description: As the title describes, there are four figures in the painting who take up most of the lower half of the painting, with the Madonna located most centrally and prominently amongst them. She holds her baby, who stands somewhat upright on her right thigh and places his hands right above his mother’s nipple on her unclothed breast. The four figures have brightly-colored draped fabric garments while the landscape behind them is in ruins, with two large arches to either side of the Madonna that look like they are in a state of being of reclaimed by vegetation and forests. 

Madonna and Child with Saint Joseph and an Angel Raffaellino del Garbo (also known as Raffaelle de’ Capponi and Raffaelle de’ Carli) Italian. Description from the Met’s online catalog (accessed Oct. 5, 2019): This is one of the finest devotional paintings by Raffaellino del Garbo, who trained in Filippino Lippi’s workshop and assisted in Lippi’s great fresco decorations in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome, from 1488–92. In the nervous line, the rather eccentric classical architecture, and the cool palette, Raffaellino comes close to the style of Filippino, who may have been responsible for the design of the painting. The losses in flesh tones on the Virgin’s face have revealed the green underpainting below. On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 640.

This painting’s appearance in my search reveals a complicated relationship between its representative and ontological states of being: is it a sick work of art representing healthy subjects or a healthy work depicting sick subjects, or, as with most chronic conditions, some combination of the two? While Raffaellino del Garbo paints the human-made ruins flanking either side of the four figures to look as though they are being reclaimed by vegetation and the surrounding natural environment, the painting has its own time-released trick that corresponds to the order in which its layers were painted. As it ages, the foregrounded Madonna, painted on top of all the background and midground layers, literally gives way to the ruins painted underneath her. 

My simple online search, replete with misdirection and hidden, anonymous metadata, shows that the vehicles for representational images, in this case, the woven cotton threads wearing layers of pigmented mud, are themselves the subjects of aging, surgical repair, and multiple partial diagnoses. This relationship between the health of the subject and the substrate can negate, jeopardize or in this particular case, reveal an entirely new meaning.

The growing production and subsequent consumption of images continues to recalibrate the speed at which both humans and machines categorize and store representational material. What this efficient consumption and classifying of images might not be so quick to categorize, however, are the supports and structures making this type of fixed representation possible— the fresh water pouring into server farms to cool their sizzling servers, the countless subway crossings from part time job to part time job fueling the social media intern’s ability to edit and upload works to a website, or the surgical interventions made on a 500 year-old canvas to keep its human subject looking “healthy” while the wild earth slowly but surely reclaims its position above her.