Selva Aparicio, Hysteria, 2020. Thorn branches woven with ligature and Hamilton obstetric table from 1931. Credit: Robert Chase Heishman

Hys·te·ri·a /həˈstirēə,həˈsterēə/ : “a psychological disorder (not now regarded as a single definite condition) whose symptoms include conversion of psychological stress into physical symptoms (somatization), selective amnesia, shallow volatile emotions, and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior. The term has a controversial history as it was formerly regarded as a disease-specific to women.”

I was 18 years old when I first came face-to-face with a doctor’s assumption that my physical pain was nothing but hysterics. Feet up in the stirrups, the most vulnerable position, I have had not one but three doctors tell me that it was all mental. Frustrated, confused, and in pain, I sought out new doctors, tried to find online communities, and after eight exhausting years, I cured myself of a common sexual disorder through alternative practice, therapy, and the reassurance that it was not, in fact, all in my head.

The history of hysteria dates back to the 1800s and early 1900s where “female hysteria” was a diagnosis for women experiencing anxiety, fainting, nervousness, insomnia, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, or sexual desire. It is the first mental illness attributed to women. What are now common medical illnesses or concerns were once shielded away from the public eye and treated in impossibly horrific ways. Men have rarely been cast as being hysterical; it’s a woman’s disease. In the 1970s, women who experienced pain during sex were seen as having repressed anger towards men. In 2012, when I was just a 20something trying to have the pleasurable, sexual life that I knew I deserved, medicine told me otherwise.

Selva Aparicio’s solo exhibition, “Hysteria,” opened in October at the International Museum of Surgical Science, but since the new mandate cut its run short, the museum may extend the show when it can open again. Until then, some of Aparicio’s pieces are viewable online. The exhibit references this push and pull between science, gender, and cis-males’ rights over a woman’s body. Born and raised outside of Barcelona, the artist found solace in nature and has built upon that experience in her professional work. Combining her passion for natural materials and her personal experiences with hospitals and medicine, she was awarded a Spring 2020 residency position at the museum. Growing up in a family of medical practitioners, Aparicio explains how she’s seen the transition into death firsthand. “This exposure to death and the medical field deeply affects me, and I reconcile these experiences in my artwork, exploring the transitory nature of life and the eroding boundaries between science and art,” she explains.

"Medical curtains are supposed to respect your privacy and make you feel at ease, but I find them quite the opposite.”
“Medical curtains are supposed to respect your privacy and make you feel at ease, but I find them quite the opposite.”Credit: Robert Chase Heishman

Aparicio says, “Unfortunately, I am one of the many victims of sexual harassment by a medical professional. [The] women’s health field is still mostly dominated by men, and the way things are being taught doesn’t differ much from teaching methods from the beginnings of obstetrics in the male world after being stolen from the woman’s hands.” For example, the speculum, invented by a man, has had the same design since the 1800s. Balancing between a medical and torture device, the cold, metal tool evades the body and performs a role all women know very well and a role the majority despise. Propping your legs in a vulnerable, exposed position, like in the stirrups, is not only uncomfortable but violent. Aparicio’s piece Hysteria encases a Hamilton gynecological table by weaving together thorn branches. In the work, the artist has encased the table, a relatable object for many women, with these strands of thorns. The thorns work to impair a full view of the table and create a curtain structure surrounding the table, where the actual thorns face the inside and the gentle side faces the viewer.

“Medical curtains are supposed to respect your privacy and make you feel at ease, but I find them quite the opposite,” explains Aparicio. “In this installation, the viewer can look through, have a pick of the situation, and decide or not to involve themselves. It’s about looking and being looked at.”

Aparicio, whose work is closely tied to nature, combines the sterilization of the museum with objects found in the woods. In the IMSS’s Obstetrics and Gynecology gallery, her piece Velo de Luto, which translates into “mourning veil,” includes 17-year-old cicada wings and women’s hair. The artist drove from Chicago to Kansas to collect the cicada wings. “I waited for them to die. I wait for all of my materials to be discarded or dead before I use them,” she says. The work is in a uterine shape and sits behind museum glass, displayed as a fragile object.

Selva Aparicio, <i>Velo de luto (Mourning veil)</i>, 2020. Magicicada wings, sewn with hair.
Selva Aparicio, Velo de luto (Mourning veil), 2020. Magicicada wings, sewn with hair.Credit: Robert Chase Heishman

In that same gallery, barbaric methods that medical experts utilized to administer childbirth, as well as other procedures, are on display. Gynecological tools from the museum’s collection are exhibited in a glass cabinet in the gallery space where we see that devices haven’t changed much, if at all. “By contextualizing the piece in the obstetric room, surrounded by paintings depicting women giving birth to the hands of a group of men, a group of speculums can make us think of the inventor Dr. Sims who made his research and surgeries on slaves in his backyard. Forceps that have saved many lives but that also have ended so many or created life-lasting health complications give a moment of breath, of reflection,” Aparicio says.

The combination of the hair and the wings represent the decay of life, two materials that represent the end. When viewing the work, gentle and fragile, it’s easy to imagine this is a cathartic process for Aparicio, as each wing is stitched together to create a larger piece. She says, “The fragility of this piece forces you to be aware of all of yourself, including the way you are breathing. Exhale too strongly and you would break the piece, walk by it too fast and it would fall on the ground.”

Aparicio is a mesmerizing artist. Looking through her portfolio, you will find that she works closely with cadavers in a morgue. Her attention to the body, to death and transition, is interwoven throughout her oeuvre. It makes sense then, that the artist would work as an artist-in-residence at the unique museum here in Chicago. After being a part of a show at the Yale Center for British Art called “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum,” where she spent countless hours at the morgue, and the “difficult birth” of her son, she began to explore themes surrounding obstetric objects.

“I was immediately driven by the forceps and the evolution of their form and materials, the speculum and its controversial history of [the] invention by Dr. Sims. And what would become the centerpiece of the main installation; an obstetric table from 1931.” Viewers will have a connection, though not always positive, to the table. The initialization, racism, and sexism within the medical field are considered by viewers, the artist, and the museum in this installation.

Due to the recent closure of museums and galleries, Aparicio says, “It’s unfortunate that after so much work, the pieces will be living in a closed museum.” However, she says that she’s trying to think positively. “Because of the scale of my installations, I often only get to see them fully mounted once I install them. This gives me a chance to think about the work for longer and find other venues where I could potentially show them in the near future.”

Aparicio says, “‘Hysteria’ centers both the memories imbued within and the imprints of past patients upon these enduring pieces to explore the nature of womanhood as a condition defined by conflict, pain, and transition, constantly positioned at the very precipice of life and death.”   v

As of right now, the International Museum of Surgical Science is closed in compliance with the governor’s new mandate. The show will most likely be extended.