“I drove her to the emergency department and experienced a sense of loss.” - Eiffel Chong
Half a year into photographing medical facilities, Eiffel Chong’s grandmother suffered a heart failure. Having so far observed the institutions of healthcare through his lens, he was forced then to confront, through his grandmother, the effects of being on the other side of the observation, of being subjected to the invasive gaze of the health regime. The sense of loss of which he experienced through his grandmother’s subsequent death is visible in this series of photographs entitled Institutionalised Care. It is a loss of bodies.
Not many of us are familiar with the sight of hospital beds without bodies, or operating theatres without blood. These interiors look strange, even creepy, without the broken bodies and the drama taking place in them. Looking at these images, we are struck by their coldness.
These are buildings designed for keeping our blood pumping and our bodies warm, except: where are the signs of life? We try and imagine bodies, bodies being operated upon these beds, bodies nursed in these rooms, bodies plugged into these machines. We feel the absence of people we have seen there: relatives, friends or public personalities who survived, who didn’t. Perhaps it is the ones who didn’t who haunt these images.
For Eiffel Chong, his images are about the signs of death. He asks if “modern technologies, medicines and machines help us ‘defeat’ death” or are themselves actually “harbingers of death”. While both are simultaneously signified every time we submit ourselves to the machines, our minds are more adept at denying the possibility that we may not emerge from this contact.
At the very moments when our grasp upon the threads of life seems to be slipping, we pull ourselves frantically toward hope.
If we survive, we remain the lead protagonists in the story of our life. We leave these rooms till fate flirts with us again sometime in the future.
In these hospital rooms without bodies, the machines are the protagonists: they survive us. By removing signs of life, we are left with its opposite.
It is because death is always a possibility that we do not come to the hospital uninvested in the outcome. At the clinic, one’s recovery seems just a few pills away, the body’s miraculous ability to repair itself simply needing a little assistance. Hospitals are for when we totally surrender. Therefore, our experiences of A & E units or their waiting rooms are always in situations of utter vulnerability, either of our own or someone close to us. Our immediate pain demands relief and we quickly give away control of our bodies to the experts. From then, we are never allowed a moment of objectivity. To be in a hospital is to be subjects of its intervention.
Eiffel’s images appear unsettling because they could potentially change our subjective relationship to these spaces. But are we able to observe these spaces of our vulnerability without first being vulnerable? Are we able to escape its call? Looking at the photos, do we feel the cold touch of the machines upon our skin and feel the shudder of mortality down our spines? Whether we are in the hospitals or out of it, our subjectivities are always already configured by our submission to it. After all, we drew our first breath in one. And for the rest of our lives, we return to it to keep breathing.
Hospitals render us as subjects of healthcare; healthcare operates as state policies; at hospitals, we are subjects of the state at our weakest, neediest and most pitiful. As the state determines what constitutes good health and ill health, this produces a moralising discourse of how to stay healthy, how to consume and defecate healthily, how to think healthily, how to look healthy. If we abuse our livers, our lungs, our sexual organs, our skins, we are bad. If we refuse treatment, we are bad. In that sense, when we are healthy, we are performing state-sanctioned notions of good health. When we fail the performance, we must be rehabilitated so we can continue the performance.
But the state doesn’t work alone. Through neo-liberal policies of market-led healthcare, private hospitals and health insurance proliferate to promise those who can afford them the best care that money can buy. This divides us into those who can afford private care and those who must be resigned to receiving free care (even if free care does not always mean lesser care). The message is clear: good care is the reward for economically productive citizens, good health can be earned. Want to indulge in the good of life? Fear not, private healthcare and insurance will protect us from the costs of our indulgences. We are allowed to be a little bad. The different standards applied to the health of different classes reveal both the gap within society and the expensive illusions with which some of us medicate our fear of suffering the same finality as others.
Ultimately, healthcare is a regime of bodily aesthetics in a society obsessed with the spectacle. We are displayed publicly within the social order like decorations on a shelf. Our images, put together among the visual accumulation of our cultures, contribute to the consistency of society’s imaginings of itself. Society’s scripts require us to play our parts and look our parts. Our health helps reinforce culturally constructed concepts of what it means to be good, consuming, contributing subjects.
Our deteriorating bodies threaten not only us, but more significantly, they disrupt the picture of wholeness. We must therefore be quarantined till our appearances can be restored, till such a time when we no longer threaten this picture.
Therefore, hospital rooms are unintelligible without us, their subjects. What these spaces make incoherent by their lack of human subjects is made coherent as images. Eiffel has transposed these subjectless rooms into aesthetic objects. In fact, they sometime appear like pictures from a catalogue, selling healthcare machines, machines that prolong our life, whether we want it or not. For this is the unquestioning logic of health: We try to live longer and longer, not because we want to, but because our parents, our children, our friends, our colleagues, our bosses, our doctors, our nurses, our country, demand we do. And so we try and buy another day’s worth of life. Another month. Another year. We become consumers of life.
We have lived long enough to build us fancy machines to help us live longer. Have we become robots endlessly reproducing ourselves? Is that our hearts beating or are we just pulses beeping in machines? Do we nurse each other or are we just selling life to one another?
The humanless interiors of Eiffel Chong’s photos (dis)embody institutionalised care that is increasingly more institution and less care. He confronts us with our mortality by questioning our dependence on institutions that help us deny the fact of it. We must think about how we want to go when we go. And how to bring our humanity to the act of caring and the act of letting go. Otherwise we will always see these hospital rooms as rooms waiting for us.