The human body is a magnificent and yet innately delicate system of symmetry that is so all-present and integrated in the human experience, it only becomes visible in the mind’s eye through the possibility of its disruption. This is the role that loss plays in the two streams of work by Ellen Garvens that comprise Prosthesis. Her Ambivalence images and Constructions assemblages evoke both the structure and the disturbance of the system of symmetry that defines our physical existence.
The two harmonious parts in Prosthesis speak to and magnify each other as they reference the fragility of this system, the body, and photography itself. The Ambivalence photographs depict prostheses in the process of their manufacture; these images document the creation of manmade devices that are destined to restore the balance of the body at the point of its loss. In this way, the Ambivalence photographs draw the contour of an exquisite interior armature, a system of support for the body that becomes visible, in this case, through the act of its replacement. Like a photograph, a prosthesis echoes the shape of what once was. Its shape derives from an antecedent no longer present, signifying not only the passage of time but also the ephemeral nature and delicacy of the human form.
While Garvens’ Ambivalence photographs document physical devices that contain the memory of the body, her elegant Constructions give form and frame—body—to the photographs within them. Hand tools, some from everyday life, such as scissors and pliers, and some, including probes and tooth extractors, more directly related to the maintenance of the body, integrate with images of hands and other overtly organic forms. The photographs that lie at the core of the Constructions are most often bifurcated, mirror images of a single organic element. Creating a whole and symmetrical form from one photographic frame mimics the role of a prosthesis, which takes the shape of one limb to form another in an ultimate act of healing and completion.
Although the Constructions bring the themes of the body and the revelation of its armature into three dimensions, we are denied full disclosure of their mysteries. The gallery wall inserts itself as a support structure, blocking our full view to the back of the assemblages. This dynamic with the wall underscores and references the true nature of the photograph: It renders the surface lines and textures of its subject in seemingly mechanical and all-encompassing detail as it leaves what lies behind that surface to the blind leap of interpretation.
While Prosthesis presents many eternal and deeply provoking concepts about the nature of our corporality, the exhibition has also been staged at a particular time in our country’s history when we are distinctly, inextricably, and unavoidably confronted with the reality of the loss of limb and even of life. As America engages in wars in parts of the world that remain distant from the everyday experiences of the majority of its citizens, the immediacy and preciousness of the body is reasserted in observing and contemplating works, such as those presented in Prosthesis, that serve as reminders of the inescapable tenuousness of our body human.
Ellen Garvens has explored combining photography with a number of other media including glass, metal, slate, marble, and found objects. Her photographs have become sculpture, drawings, and artist books. In a 2008 online book entitled Making Devices, her work also incorporates narratives from those who wear or make prosthetics and orthotics. To research Making Devices, she visited prosthetic/orthotic clinics in the United States, Laos,
Cambodia, and Thailand.
Garvens received a BS in Art at the University of Wisconsin and an MFA from the University of New Mexico. She has received a Fulbright-Hayes Scholarship (for research and travel to Cameroon, Africa), a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship Grant, and an Artist Trust/Washington State Fellowship. She has been a finalist for the Flintridge Foundation Award. Her work has been reviewed in Arts Magazine, Art on Paper, Sculpture Magazine, The Village Voice, New Art Examiner, New York Times, Creative Camera London, and SF Camerawork. Her art has been featured in an MIT Press book, entitled Each Wild Idea, byGeoffrey Batchen.
Garvens is married to painter Jim Phalen and has two children. She teaches photography at the University of Washington in Seattle. To read more about Ellen Garvens and her work, visitwww.ellengarvens.com.
I would like to thank Mary Goodwin for the insight to incorporate both bodies of work, Constructions and Ambivalence, in this exhibition and catalogue. I also thank the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities and the Royalty Research Fund for their support of my research. A sincere thank you to the UW Prosthetic/Orthotic Lab and Clinic for their openness and interest, in particular
Danny Abrahamson. I am grateful for the generosity of the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics, Phnom Penh, Cambodia; the Cooperative Orthotic Prosthetic Enterprise, Vientiane, Laos; Handicap International Belgium Physical Rehabilitation Center and Angkor Hospital for Children, Siem Reap, Cambodia; and the Prosthesis Foundation of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Thank you also to Janelle Taylor for contributing a poetic and perceptive voice about the work. Most importantly, Jim, Cole, and Mason, thank you for your love and for being there.