Sculptor's installations address attitudes about female body, sexuality

Amy Milgrub Marshall
October 04, 2016

Envision a robotic arm, eight feet high and covered in a fine white dust, intricately carving a massive piece of marble in a large, otherwise empty room, the buzzing sound of the machine bouncing off the walls. The “operator” is a computer guiding the arm to carve the marble based on a 3D model created by an artist who is not only absent from the room, but located an ocean away.

That artist is Cristin Millett, sculptor and associate professor of art at Penn State, who recently completed her second residency with the Digital Stone Project (DSP) at the Garfagnana Innovazione in Tuscany, a state-of-the-art center for carving marble using the newest technologies. Prior to her June 2016 residency, Millett spent almost a year perfecting the computer model of her planned marble sculpture, and then corresponding with the engineers at the DSP to ensure the seven-axis robotic arm was doing what she wanted it to do. By the time she arrived in Italy, the marble sculpture was ready for the detailed work only human hands can complete.

“The robot roughs out the form, and then I refine and finish the stone by hand, working in areas the robotic arm can't access," she explained. “I never thought I would carve marble, but new technology makes it possible.”

For Millett, an Embedded Faculty Researcher in the College of Arts and Architecture’s Arts & Design Research Incubator (ADRI) for 2016–18, computers and robots are simply additional tools she uses in her art, which has long focused on evolving perceptions of the human body, especially the female form. For her 2016 DSP project, she made a new piece in her series of “obstetrical phantoms,” or birthing models. Visible Phantom, 14” x 18.5” x 26”, capitalizes on the translucency of marble to suggest the sensual quality of skin. It was exhibited at the Sala Ex Marmi in Pietrasanta, Italy, in July, and is now on its way to the United States via ship. Once it arrives, sometime this fall, Millett plans to project digital imagery captured through medical imaging techniques onto its smooth ovoid surface.

“Obstetrical phantoms were, and still are, widely used in Western medicine to illustrate anatomical complications and to teach medical students and midwives birthing techniques during labor,” explained Millett. “By enveloping the form in marble drapery, I am paying homage to the long tradition of stone carving.”

Millett traces her interests in medicine and anatomy to childhood conversations around the dinner table, where her family of scientists often discussed the human body. While pursuing her M.F.A. in sculpture at Arizona State University, her fascination with the body and body politics morphed into her art, and today she creates objects and installations that give insight into the female body while questioning societal attitudes about human sexuality.

“In an effort to overcome both fear and ignorance of my own body, I began to research gynecology as a gender-specific metaphor,” explained Millett, who has studied medical instruments, anatomical models, and historical texts throughout Europe and the United States. “Although most scholars respond to their research in writing, as a visual artist, the results of my critical analysis are expressed in works of art.”

Millett’s work represents an intersection of scientific ideas and contemporary aesthetic observations. She creates architectural environments that metaphorically reference aspects of the body. For example, Obstetrical Phantom: Suffragist invites viewers inside a curtained voting booth where they find a human pelvis and anatomical models on an aluminum surface. Two tally counters connected to the anatomical models allow viewers to “vote”—male or female—when they connect one of the models to a metal plate attached to the pelvis. This piece, made in 2004, has been shown extensively across the United States, including The Front Gallery, New Orleans, La.; School of Art Gallery, California State University, Fresno; and Tipton Gallery, Johnson City, Tenn.

“I want to provoke contemplation on how we perceive, stereotype, and stigmatize the female body and question the history that molded the controversy surrounding reproduction,” Millett explained. “People interact with the exhibition and ‘vote,’ I think because they can close the curtain and feel a level of privacy. Gallery attendants have paid attention to how viewers vote by noting the tally changes after they exit the piece. The vulva has always ended up winning every time I exhibit it.”

Millett has also completed a number of works related to her study of Renaissance-era anatomy theaters, amphitheater-like spaces where medical students observed human or animal dissections. Her most recent piece, Coronal Plane, is the culmination of her research of the anatomy theater at the University of Padua, built in 1594 and the oldest surviving anatomy theater in the world. “In anatomical terminology, the coronal plane is a vertical plane that divides the body into stomach and back sections. Adopting this approach for dissection, I created a partial section of the Paduan anatomy theater, thereby metaphorically ‘dissecting’ the space and exposing the supporting structure within,” explained Millett. “By incorporating the concentric tiers of balustrades, the installation directly references the environment of the anatomy theater.”

Cristin Millett: The 21st Century Sculptor

The research and creative activity of College of Arts and Architecture faculty members is on display in a series of approximately three-minute videos produced by Cody Goddard, multimedia specialist for the college’s eLearning Institute, and Cynthia White, research associate. The first video features Cristin Millett, associate professor of art and sculptor.

Cody Goddard and Cynthia White

Millett used a CNC—Computer Numerical Control—router to mill the 12 wooden balustrade panels for Coronal Plane. She created the form in 3D modeling software and then used the CNC to mill each panel, designed to replicate the railing detail from the anatomy theater at the University of Padua. “Each panel required about four days of CNC milling,” said Millett. “For the plan of the overall installation, I was thinking about how an architectural section drawing of the historic Padua anatomy theater was like a section of a human body sliced along the coronal plane. Using the section drawing as a guide, I imagined rotating the drawing 90 degrees and placing it horizontally on the floor to create the footprint for the installation. I then extruded the drawing vertically to a height of six feet to physically engage the viewer.”

A portion of Coronal Plane was recently exhibited at Asymmetrick Arts in Rockland, Maine, along with Millet’s Transection of the Anatomical Planes, which she completed at the Garfagnana Innovazione in 2015. That piece is a marble dissection table, 26” x 68” x 34”, incised along the coronal, sagittal, and transverse planes of the body. In the Asymmetrick Arts installation, it was located in the position of the dissecting table at the University of Padua anatomy theater.

“In Transection of the Anatomical Planes, the slab normally supporting a prone cadaver is instead a vacant void, a sunken cavity suggesting emptiness and loss,” explained Millett. “The piece references the tradition of écorché models as well as contemporary modes of visualizing the body.”

Those contemporary modes, such as CT scans and MRIs, have influenced how we perceive the inside of the body, said Millett. Her work is, in part, a response to medical advances in imaging, offering another way for people to view and understand their bodies, in both physical and societal contexts.

Millett’s ADRI project, Stiff, will build on her previous work, further examining our evolving understanding of human anatomy and its physiological processes, and how CT scans, MRIs, and sonography have changed how we view our interiors. “Is the established medical pedagogy of dissecting cadavers a thing of the past? Will the gross anatomy lab be replaced by the computer lab? Our bodies are now sliced and reassembled in our never-ending quest for the cure, whatever the ailment,” Millett said. “I hope to collaborate with researchers who share similar interests, from fields such as medicine, anatomy, and gender studies, to engage in a contemporary cultural critique of societal issues surrounding reproduction, gender identity, and sexual taboos.”



(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017