I walk into the exhibition space, instantly noticing Balas & Wax’s sculpture, Vacancies (2018). I circle around what is supposed to be a hotel registration desk a couple of times, trying to figure out which side is for the customers. I hope for a clue as I open Registration, the book embedded in the desk, but the words are written in so many different directions that I have no idea where to stand. Giving up, I flip through the book and read: “We are attentive to your needs, don’t hesitate to ring the bell.” There is indeed a bell on the desk, but I am too terrified to ring it. A mere desk successfully drowns me in debilitating hesitation and helpless vulnerability, introducing me to the world of Health Club.
Hyde Park Art Center’s current exhibition, Health Club, explores the profound influence of manipulated space on the human mind and body. The exhibiting artists challenge preconceived notions of space and continue the 21st-century discussion of “placemaking”: “the human act of creating spaces that fulfill an emotional or practical need to connect with each other,” as defined by curator Allison Peters Quinn. The artworks on display freely traverse the grounds of architecture, public policy, service, medicine, and history, making the exhibition a truly interdisciplinary and intellectual experience for all.
Charo Garaigorta’s painting series Airports (2018) illustrates the travel routes of airplanes and architectural ground plans of airports. What is organized chaos at first glance is made clear upon closer inspection; human bodies drawn with airplane-like physiques represent all of the jets. Rows of connected human bodies are spread across the large canvas, yet you can always trace them back to the origin: the airport. Garaigorta’s work questions the agency of human beings under the systematic control exerted by large architectural spaces, leaving the audience with an eerie chill.
But institutional spaces do not always have to be so daunting. Nelly Agassi and Andrew Schachman’s collaborative work Building As Care (2015) explores the integration of architecture and therapy. By deconstructing the floor plans of hospitals, they inquire how the care for human well-being can be prioritized in architecture, and how this mentality can become apparent on a rigid grid.
Health Club recognizes that the relationship between space and the human condition is not simply unidirectional; human experiences can transform spaces as well. Nelly Agassi’s Horrortopia (2018), animated by Maya Raviv, is inspired by the quaint nature of postcards sent by 20th-century mental institution patients to their loved ones. The photographs on the postcards only capture the picturesque gardens and lush forests surrounding the hospitals rather than the buildings themselves, hiding the real conditions of these institutions. Agassi’s animated work further intensifies this fabricated representation of environment and shows that spaces can be a complex fusion of reality, imagination, and memory. Similarly, Kevin J. Miyazaki’s Camp Home (2007) series uses current-day photographs of former WWII Japanese internment camps to document the ironic reuse of historical spaces and the malleability of those spaces to their inhabitants’ touch.
The interactive nature of the show forced viewers to engage with space as much as they were looking at representations thereof.
Health Club, though a small exhibition, takes time to walk through. It displays a diverse group of artists with varying backgrounds and methodologies in order to deliver a comprehensive exploration of space and “placemaking.” It challenges the audience to engage, transform, question, and imagine with every piece they encounter, and such rigor makes the exhibition a profound and personal experience. Treat yourself to comforting drink at the Bridgeport Coffeehouse right next door—their coffee never tasted better than after my latest visit to the Hyde Park Art Center!