THE POWER OF FRAGILITY
A body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved” Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1)
Exquisite ornaments and objects can be the most cruel weapons.
Delicate glass forms, finished with chrome details imply a beauty full of strangeness. The objects are elongated and pointy, Delicate and at the same time threatening like knives.
Each piece is so well finished and polished as if it was in fact in a kind of formal wholeness, although, at the same time, revealing the closeness to recognisable shapes – a déjá vu of something that already existed and has been re-used, not being clear to what end.
In her creation process, in the course of several years, the artista collected hospital equipment to use in her sculpture jewels.
Most of that equipment is composed of glass, like test tubes, high frequency glass electrodes for beauty treatments, and syringes. Others are metal objects like vaginal speculums used in gynaecology, as well as other objects created by her from already existent tools and machine parts.
The works of Teresa Milheiro have, in their contradiction, their main strength. It is exactly due to its ability to cause disruption that her work leads us to think about the concept of oppression.
Along her path Milheiro chose jewellery as her medium for artistic expression. Since the 1980’s, when she started to work consistently in this media, she conformed to a way of life connected to the punk movement. A certain behavioural anarchism that already framed the taste for a creation totally opposed to all types of standardization..
Thus, all that could be connected to ornament and opulence gained discursive outlines against women disempowerment and all the domination mechanisms.
In her productive chronology first came the jewels connected to self-defense. Then the works that allude to torture.
In this exhibition, Milheiro reflects a research carried out on madness and, specifically to lobotomy as a “treatment” method. The word lobotomy, or leucotomy, means literally the act of cutting a lobe of the brain. In the beginning of the 19th century, mental illness was no longer a social issue but a medical matter. It is then that leucotomy appears as a surgery intended to reduce and prevent symptoms of behavioural disorders.In fact for thousands of years some ancient cultures had already adopted the practice of making holes in the skull to free the individual of malefic spirits. But the idea behind lobotomy reached the status of state of the art medical research when, in 1935, the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz during his research at the Lisbon University found out that patients with obsessive behaviours had defective circuits in their brain. Egas Moniz advocated the use of that type of mutilating surgery just in cases of severe depression and when there was a risk of violent behaviour. However its use spread worldwide, with many countries performing the procedure. In the beginning, lobotomies were made with ice picks, present in almost all pieces presented by the artist in this exhibition. The tip of the tool entered the brain through a hole punched behind the eyes of the patient. At least 6% of the patients didn’t survive the procedure. Others became irreversibly apathetic, ruined, and mentally mutilated.During her research Teresa Milheiro found out that, although this procedure had been intended for both genders, 85% of the lobotomies performed in psychiatric hospitals as a way to silence madness or erase traces of hysteria were performed in women. The ranking of gender connected to the exercise of power gains clearer outlines in the thinking of Michel Foucault. The French thinker relates the discipline of the body to the institution of power. The silencing of hysteria is also a submission of the body, a key strategy to the exercise of power.In a patriarchal society, the feminine body is by itself a docile body, as opposed to the body that detains the power. But the surgically tamed body, the silenced body incapable of any type of opposition becomes the highest expression of the body submission discussed by Foucauld. Besides the lobotomy, Teresa Milheiro also states the institutionalisation of women as an effective way of standardisation and submission. The artist mentions the case of the sculptor Camille Claudel who, although she was not submitted to a lobotomy, was hospitalised for 29 years in a psychiatric hospital where her own brother took her because he was ashamed of having a sister who was an artist, who never got married and had no children. It is a split body, taken away from its political and creative capacity.Keeping in mind the silencing produced by the disciplinary power, I look again at Teresa Milheiro’s small pieces, delicate and at the same time so radical.They all make sense now. The fragility of glass adds to the industrial coldness of chrome. All the forms evoke the brain or the vagina and their construction, although they might not be completely decipherable, consistently trigger a sense of silent violence, submission, and power games.
— Katia Canton