Category Archives: Wellness

Gwynneth VanLaven’s Wellness & Waiting Room Works

Still Waiting


This has been my Quaker meetinghouse since childhood. In graduate school I focused my art on medical waiting rooms. I am drawn to them as these strangely dissociated, floating spaces, intentionally innocuous non-spaces for passing non-time.  I am curious about how we become acculturated/accustomed to behave in specific ways as soon as we enter these holding tanks, and how that might affect our ways of thinking as well.  This, my Quaker worship space, might be considered one of God’s waiting rooms.  We wait for our name to be called– contact with the spirit or “light within.” I wander here, still awkward and uncomfortable with the very notion of worship and religion. I chafe in the silence of waiting. In the still, long silences of our meeting I taste the burden of the unknown and unknowable. It is disquieting, and inner stirrings clash with outer quietude. I scan the simple but charged room for a visual anchor.  The room shifts, or was that I?  We sit; still, waiting.

ArtBeta: Works in Progress — Link to “Still Waiting” Project Portfolio 


Waiting Rooms

I have long  been experiencing and researching waiting rooms in their many forms. I am interested in how they are intentionally forgettable spaces, programmed to be non-spaces for non-time, proscribing a very specific way of acting within them.  By constructing my own waiting rooms I work to subvert the experience of waiting for a doctor in a gallery space.  I create a waiting room as an installation that breaks some gallery and waiting room norms with a humorous combination of the familiar and the unexpected.  I use the new, interactive space, as a contemplative playground for ideas, a sort of tactical “safe space” where it becomes safe and encouraged to muse at and challenge the institutional methods that maintain our roles and attitudes around around waiting, and around illness and wellness.

Please Wait.

“Please Wait.”, my thesis show, is comprised of art works that question institutional and cultural ideology. The installation and encompassed works derive from my experiences with doctors, hospitals, and countless waiting rooms. Framed as a medical waiting room in the gallery, the MFA Thesis show raises issues including the cultural conception of wellness, how we perform as patients, and how spaces intended to seem innocuous can harbor ideology. The threads that tie the thesis work together are my use of self as source and subject, my extrapolation of the personal to a social and political significance for others, my goal to complicate rather than solve or simplify issues, and a challenge to the notions of the normative, of authority, and of sociocultural presumptions that are harmful or limiting.


Throughout my studies I’ve found, and myself created, work on pain, suffering and illness.  I challenged myself to imagine and explore the “other end,” and shifted my focus from illness towards work about wellness. I am interested in how images of wellness are constructed and propagated. Mythical, idealized, and surreal images in the media give a very narrow view of the possible faces of health. Research into the advertising of pharmaceuticals and health products led me to create a series of idealized Wellness Images, Wellness Videos, and IDYLIFY, a website as portal for critique.


The “Wellness Pose”

When I think of what wellness would look like for me, in conscious and subconscious thought, I run through the cadre of marketing images I have eaten up in magazines and TV sets in waiting rooms, on tissue boxes and clipboards and pamphlets. There I find a recurring and visually striking theme of devotion, surrender, and reverence.  I found over and over in my research ads with a person in a familiar posture. The recurrent pose of both arms outstretched, palms out, head lifted, has been common in religious art of both ancient and Christian faiths. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this pose is called the Orant, a gesture used during prayer, painted in icons, and attached to sarcophagi of seekers of salvation.

Certainly this pose conjures of feelings of devotion. Additionally, it is a posture of praise, of exuberance, reverence, and waiting. It is a pose of dissociation. The offset, distant gazes and surrendering body posture imply an otherness. The other may be the authority of the medical establishment. We are asked to believe in the salvation medicine promises such that we open our bodies and hearts in posture and action. In this posture of surrender, we are offering ourselves while banishing critical judgment which might otherwise question the authority of the pharmaceutical and its claims. We surrender our questioning of the acculturated ideals of wellness.

In the images are a Sweet Wellness cake I had at the opening of my MFA show, a curtain that divided the space between waiting rooms and exam rooms, with 20 feet of wellness poses from actual ad campaigns, the X-ray lit images of my doctors who have taken the pose for my camera, and a group of visitors to my MFA show doing their versions of the “wellness pose.”


Pill Pinata

Imagine if you could buy one of these at PartyMania!  Inside are candies and vitamin packets, along with some free drug samples.  It is hand crafted of the Health Section of The Washington Post, flour paste, and crepe paper.  My physical involvement in the making of this object revealed important lessons on process.  Much like with the pinhole camera, the direct reality of materials brings something pixels don’t.  Direct physical engagement also implicates me as part and parcel of the thing.  It is a labor of love.  As such, I haven’t yet brought myself to orchestrate its destruction.  Ah well, soon to come!


Update:  Smashed!  3/18/10

Photos by Deborah LashEveryone helps sort out the pill packets from the candy packets...
Rather anticlimactically it thuds to the ground in one piece...

Pinhole Dialogue with the Dead

I have been going armed with my pinhole camera home-made of a recycled SPAM can, to the site where I was hit nearly two years ago by a man in a Lincoln town car. The perpetrator has since died.  Standing where I had been walking that morning, looking at a SPAM can taped to a tripod where he would have been, feels absurd.  This absurdity gives me distance to feel safe to be both playful and reflective.

The fact of being recorded by a pinhole, with its long exposures, gives me time to feel like I am dialoguing with the hitter, channeling him from the dead, or bringing him out of the trance that he had been in when he hit me over and over again. The long exposure times also allow for me to be silly, angry, determined, scared, angry, and resilient, all in one exposure. The process is liberating rather than capturing. If a traditional camera “freezes” an action in time and space, so too does an “accident” or trauma. Part of me feels like I’m left there in space and time, and when I revisit the space I feel frozen in the face of it, unable to avoid Him and The Car that are ghosts but frozen in full flesh and color in my memory. I want to be un-frozen, and the pinhole helps do that.

While there I imagine he is in that silly box, a piece of flimsy film, a latent image, impressionable to my every move. I imagine the light that bounces off me could hit him and tell him something of my experience of that fateful encounter, that “accident.”  There is something in the process, an uncertainty, that is liberating too. It mirrors and confirms my own healing process, I suppose. I have no idea whether he knows, somewhere in the afterlife, that he has hurt me nor that I am determinedly slinking back.


As in much of my work, I use myself to examine cultural assumptions.  The culture around medicine maintains certain lofty ideals by which “wellness” is measured. Through this video I hope to complicate that ideal of wellness.  For this instance, perhaps it is some state or condition that we settle for in the face of no perfect alternatives.  What is your measure of therapeutic success?

Trouble, 2007


In September of 2007 I was walking on a sidewalk and was hit by a car and crushed against a building. I confronted time, trauma, and my body in videos about past and present issues. These include 13 Swallows, Of Two Minds, and Reclaiming Space. They focus on my experiences taking pills, dealing with an eating disorder, and with the accident itself. Above are stills from four of these videos.