Sculptor Cristin Millet is a contemporary artist whose work focuses on medical history, specifically issues concerning the female reproductive system. In response to her research, she creates objects and installations that comment upon societal attitudes about the female body.
“Coronal Plane,” Millet’s exhibition on display at Gettysburg College’s Schmucker Art Gallery, makes specific references to the use of instructional dissection which, at one time, was the preferred method for the study of human anatomy.
While the exhibition encompasses 10 sculptures, the centerpiece, from which the title is derived, is a contemporary re-creation of such an anatomy theater. Modeled on the medical theaters of the 16th through 19th centuries, where the corpse was placed in the center, the installation examines both historical assumptions about the female body as well as contemporary issues of privacy, voyeurism, morality and medical rights.
A series of beautifully crafted wooden walls have round viewing holes, at about waist level, in which one can peer inside to see medical images of female reproductive systems from the period, glowing red in color. Kneeling benches behind allow for viewing and lend a spiritual aura to the experience.
As one moves down the line, image by image, the viewer becomes immersed within the work.
The path ultimately leads to a table, titled “Transection of the Anatomical Planes.” This is a reference to the historical use of dissecting tables in medical research and instruction. The form of a woman is sunken into the white table, the figure becoming negative space, alluding to the absence of the body.
Another historical inspiration comes in the form of “Coronation Throne for Artemis” with a traditional birthing chair adorned in plush, golden fabric and soft, breast-like forms, a motif of the Greek goddess Artemis. Since Artemis is the goddess of fertility, the chair, once used to ease the process of childbirth, becomes fit for royalty.
It is obvious to see that Millet’s artistic references are grounded firmly in research on the history of medicine and anatomy, as well as the intersection of history and allegory.
The combination of the corporeal and spiritual manifests itself in several of the other works.
Alluding to martyrdom and the concept of “sacred anatomy”—the dismemberment and dispersal of cadavers deemed holy—Millet created several sculptures exploring this theme.
There are two pieces using the lore of Saint Agatha, whose breasts were removed during torture. “Sever: Agatha’s Offering” is a traditional portrayal of her delicate hands holding a serving try with her sacrificial offering. In “The Consumption of Agatha’s Excision,” an oval two-way mirror suspends a pair of hands who appear to be serving her offering. Beneath the mirror a silver bell rings out, since Agatha was also noted to be the patron saint of bell makers.
The story behind “Miscarriage of Justice: Lucy’s Offering” is of Saint Lucy whose eyes were gouged out during her martyrdom. This piece has a cast of a blindfolded face, as well as the cast of a pair of hands, who hold a tray upon which sits a set of glass eyes. The casts are dark and dull in color as the bright hazel eyes gaze outward.
Millet draws upon the practices of the past to comment on current issues. From the mutilation and dissection of the body to the study of anatomy through objective display, she draws parallels to today’s controversial topics of privacy and modern medical practices, as well as the role of religion in medicine. Her incorporation of many unexpected, unconventional materials uniquely blends the historical and the modern in an intriguing, provocative display.
“Cristin Millett: Coronal Plane” is on display at the Schmucker Art Gallery at 300 N. Washington St., on the campus of Gettysburg College until March 9. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission to the gallery is free and open to the public. For more information see www.gettysburg.edu/gallery.