The final thematic section of The Body Electric, a Walker-organized exhibition now on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, brings together artists who explore the body as fluid and subject to change, revealing transformations through internal or external forces. Dubbed “The Malleable Body,” it features three works by Carolyn Lazard, Candice Lin and Patrick Staff, and Marianna Simnett that address complex issues on so many minds these days: health, care, and treatment. While some of the works focus on the complexities of gender identity, others examine physical changes by documenting personal journeys through illness and healing. To bring these issues into sharper focus, we invited each artist to consider their works in relation to these themes, as well as the role of technology in their respective practices. Here, Lin and Staff discuss ideas that inform Hormonal Fog and other works.
In his book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, Stephen Buhner describes a recipe for licorice ale made with hops and black cohosh that warns of the three plants’ high phytoestrogen content: “Overuse in men… can stimulate breast growth—a somewhat painful experience. The breasts do not grow much, just enough to cause pain, nipple sensitivity, and attendant nervous fright from these conditions.” He notes that reducing your intake will halt these symptoms. P. lightly circles the word “sensitivity” in pencil, marking the page with a cat-shaped Post-it note. These are the plant brethren of “longtime companion,” “spinster,” “lone aunt.”
I. shares Paul Grant and Shamin Ramasamy’s 2012 research paper, An Update on Plant Derived Anti-Androgens with a friend, a doctor. She remarks that she is surprised to learn there were so many “natural” compounds out there that affect our hormones. MLY. and P. speak about reading counter narratives as queer practice, reading botanical texts queerly. What is ancient about herbalism and what is modern about gender transition?
What is modern about herbalism, and what is ancient about transitioning?
Hormones change the soft tissues in the body. Chinese Peony (Paeonia lactiflora) is native to central and eastern Asia and can cause aromatization when synthesized in the body. Aromatization is when the chemical composition of a molecular structure is altered by adding something called an aromatic ring, a ring of six carbon atoms with a hydrogen atom attached to each carbon (a benzene ring). So, in this case, “the testo in your body becomes more like the shape of estro when you add the ring, and so it does estro things instead of testo things.” The shape of a molecule determines its function, like a lock and key. C. reads about how the shape of the benzene molecule came to the scientist August Kekulé through a trance vision of the ouroboros, a snake eating its tail. The mystic nature of science.
On rewriting bodies of flesh and bodies of text, it’s interesting to note that an earlier edition of Rina Nissim’s Natural Healing in Gynecology replaced the wording for a more explicitly stated abortion recipe to “emmenagogues,” echoing an earlier obfuscation of knowledge around contraceptive and abortifacient plants. A 1705 edition of botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian’s book on caterpillars and related plants in Dutch Suriname included a notation under the Peacock Flower (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) that it was used by “the Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters… to abort children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are.” A later edition of Merian’s Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname edited this out along with other indications of plants that could be used as abortifacients1.
In Berlin in the late 1790s, the savin trees (Juniperus sabina) were ripped out in Tiergarten because visitors “showed too great an interest in them.”2 In 1935, as pro-natalist Nazis clamped down on abortion, cultivation of the savin tree was again forbidden. The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, The Juniper Tree, hints at this repressed knowledge of the tree’s bio- and necro-politics. In the tale, a mother makes a wish under the tree for a child. The child is born and the mother dies and is buried under the tree. The boy child is later killed by his new stepmother and buried under the tree. He is reborn as a bird, and the tree aids him in exacting his revenge on the world.
More likely, it is the tree’s indifference that leads us to pluck and strip its leaves and bark— pounding, drying, mashing, drinking and smoking its parts in an attempt to still the moment where one points to the rings in a severed Sequoia’s trunk and says, ‘Here I was born, and here I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.’3
Inhaling and ingesting clouds. What we exhale is a fraction of carbon dioxide, but mostly it is leftover oxygen. The air we breathe contains 21 percent oxygen, and the rest is nitrogen. When we inhale, we don’t use all the air we inhale. There is such a thing called “dead space” between our mouth and our lungs—the oxygen hangs around in that dead space. Soft tissues.
Smoke is commonly thought of as an unwanted byproduct of fire: stoves, candles, fireplaces, arson, forest fires, burning oil fields. Of cigarette smoke: second-hand, stale on your clothes, on your breath, a rasping voice, lung cancer. Soot marks from the smoke of a hot burning house fire can scorch a V into the walls, P. reads in a New York Times article. When an object catches fire, it creates such a pattern, as heat and smoke radiate outward; the bottom of the V can, therefore, point to where a fire began.
The engineer may seek to harness the many emanations of smoke for fumigation, communication, or cooking; for its offensive and defensive capabilities. In these instances, it may become a usable toxin, a directed load, and thrust, or a series of readable signs. It is mostly disembodied from its source and its own ecosystem and significance.
James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis describe the Gaia hypothesis as a view of the Earth as a living organism where the clouds are the Earth’s lungs, the rivers and oceans are the blood, the land is the skeletal structure and the living organisms are the Earth’s senses.4 Projecting an anthropocentric metaphor has its limits, and so the kingdom of plants is simply invoked by the example of the California Redwood tree (Sequoia Gigantea).
Thousands of centuries-old redwood trees are mostly composed (97 percent) of tissues we consider dead. Only a small rim of cells along the edge of the trunk is living. Similarly, the Earth as Gaia has a seemingly small crust of living organisms around a core we call “inanimate.” Viruses are also considered inanimate, while bacteria are the animate, and in fact, the most prevalent life form on Earth. “Bacteria initially populated the planet and have never relinquished their hold.”5
In what ways then are clouds alive?
We could say, the clouds are eating us, even as we ingest their amorphous, malleable forms. Partially digested, their bodies hang within our “dead space”: reorganizing, buoying. From within the cloud, we recognize our bodies are porous, despite the socio-scientific project that seeks to lead us to believe that our skins are an impermeable layer, a firewall.
We want to in- and ex-hale a fine mist. Feel smoke soak every part and become a part of all. Make your eyes water. What are the effect of clouds on the gendered body during “an era of extinctions, loss, shock, reassessment, and disorientation”6? What are the usable toxins, the reorganizing combustibles, emitted by smoking bundles of licorice root and black cohosh? Or the sweet-scented mist infused with peony essence? Like smoke or a river, “the body, trans or not, is not a clear, coherent and positive integrity. The important distinction is not the hierarchical, binary one between wrong body and right body, or between fragmentation and wholeness. It is rather a question of discerning multiple and continually varying interactions among what can be defined indifferently as coherent transformation, decentered certainty, or limited possibility.”7
1 Londa L. Schiebinger, Plants and Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 107–115.
2 Schiebinger, 127.
3 Vertigo, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958.
4 Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, “The Atmosphere as Circulatory System of the Biosphere—The Gaia Hypothesis,” Slanted Truths (New York: Springer–Verlag, 1997), 127–158.
5 Margulis and Dorian Sagan, What is Life? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
6 Cleo Woelfle–Erskine and July Cole, “Transfiguring the Anthropocene,” TSQ, Vol. 2, No. 2, May 2015, 299.
7 Quote from Eva Hayward, Woelfle–Erskine and Cole, 2015, 305.