Sharona Franklin: Bodily Worship on the Amoebic Altar
An exploration of the artist's practice and her 2020 exhibition, New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing, as it relates to disability and the concept of the bio-ritual.
Image ID: A dark-haired woman with bangs, wearing a bandana-patterned head scarf, stands in front of an ivory background. She is holding a bouquet of yellow and white wildflowers, and part of the bouquet obscures her face.
Sharona Franklin is a multidisciplinary disabled artist, writer, advocate, designer, and consultant, living and working in Vancouver, CA. Born with a rare degenerative disease in 1987, and with continual diagnoses occurring throughout her life, Franklin has always lived intertwined with the pharmaceutical structures governing her treatment. In her work, Franklin sets out to engage with these structures, putting them in conversation with the routines of domestic life. She refers to them in combination as “bio-rituals.” She explores how the two are related through contrasting bio-technology and organic material in her compositions and sculptures. Syringes are a constant motif in her work, and questions of care and accessibility are both asked and answered by their placement within bouquets of medicinal plants, gelatin sculptures, or on hand woven quilts. Domestic and technological spheres are converged in Franklin’s work through her use of food, hand crafts, and furniture as the foundational structures for many of her pieces.
Image ID: A collage of photographs of the artworks featured in New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing. Image descriptions can be found later in the article.
In her 2020 show at King’s Leap, New York, New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing, Franklin focused her practice on the concept of the “bio-ritual”. In Franklin’s case, bio-rituals involve her daily treatments as they intersect her domestic life. To Franklin, daily treatments provide space and time for mindfulness, yet conventionally, syringes and needles are associated with pain and fear. Through her artistic practice, referred to by Franklin as a “radical acceptance,” she makes these rituals visible. In an interview with lutte collective, she specifically refers to her sculptural work as an exploration of the ways in which biotechnology and pharmaceutical systems intersect her human biology. Her art provides a space for Franklin to come to terms with her reliance on life-giving treatment, and mediate the bio-technical and domestic spheres of her life. In an interview with Pin-Up Magazine, she explains that she has faced judgment for using treatments sourced from animals, and general confusion surrounding her treatments often led to negative feelings. Antibodies are a major subject of focus in this exhibition, as they are integral to Franklin’s treatments. She says, “With the project, I’ve been trying to allow a new world to exist,” one that converges the medical and non-medical through representative visibility. Franklin often includes plants with natural healing properties in her work, as a nod to their medicinal properties as well as nature’s role in her life and upbringing.
Image ID: A collage of photographs of Comfort Studies, 2020 72 x 55 ½ inches [183 x 141 cm] Cotton, linen, velvet, silk, polyester, vinyl, wood, plastic.
Franklin’s hand woven quilt, Comfort Studies, questions notions of biotech and care. Each square of the quilt frames a different, collage-style composition. In the whole view of the quilt, each individual patch is an individual, cellular semblance of a bio-ritual. In one patch, a syringe lies over a drawing of a fairy from a children’s book, and a few odd buttons, stickers, and an elephant trinket surround the syringe. In another, a syringe is placed atop a collage of hot pink fabric scraps and doodles, with butterflies fluttering in the corner. The quilt itself is made of materials one would find rooting around their grandmother’s sewing box. Each patch is made of a different blend of colorful fabric scraps and trimmings, each with a different colors and textures. This leaves the quilt with a handmade quality, and along with the individualized attention given to each patch by Franklin, evokes the care one might find when enveloped in a warm blanket. The craft of quilting and the iconography scattered throughout the quilt accord with traditional notions of kitschy femininity. The questions surrounding ideals of medical care and care work are woven deeper into the cloth through Franklin’s conjuring of warm and fuzzy imagery and its contrast with the more sterile bio-tech. The syringes may seem out of place in such comfortable surroundings, but Franklin purposefully puts them in conversation to reckon with the bio-rituals of treatment, as well as the care work often associated with the domestic sphere. Franklin recalls her focuses through the incorporation of lyrical phraseology, scattering bits of her poetry throughout the quilt. Sentiments like “Stinging Nettle Queen of Herbs,” “Pain is a Peace Teacher,” and questions like “Who’s antibody is your body of?” encourage the audience to ruminate on the ideals of care both presented and questioned by Franklin in the exhibition.
Language plays a major role in Franklin’s work in both an aesthetic and activist sense. In many of her pieces outside this exhibition, her poetry is woven throughout her compositions to encourage thought from the audience. She often uses bold colors and shapes to garner attention to her words, and uses fonts inspired by the psychedelia movement. Franklin takes heavy influence from psychedelia, using it as both a motif and an experiential component of her work. By using fonts and stylistic proponents of the movement, and often twisting and stretching their conventional formatting, Franklin makes a two-fold reference to psychedelia. Not only is she nodding to the movement visually, but throughout her body of work, time and space are purposefully played with to reflect the realities of pharmaceutical drug treatment. “Crip time,” as referenced by Alice Wong in the quote “Extend time. Bend time. Crip time,” refers to the often unique experience of time and space undergone by disabled individuals. The quote woven into the top left corner of the quilt references crip time as well: “Good Things Rise, Don’t Fall for Now, Forever is Bending.”
Image ID: A collage of photographs of Mycoplasma Altar, 2020 Bone Dust Sculpture: 17 x 17 x 17 inches [43 x 43 x 43 cm] Plinth: 16 x 17 x 17 inches [41 x 43 x 43 cm] Overall: 33 x 17 x 17 inches [84 x 43 x 43 cm] Gelatin powder, daisies, foraged rose thorns sourced by Wretched Flowers, babies breath, juniper berry, metal nuts, kidney beans, amoxicillin pills, hydroxychloriquine pills, methotrexate pills, antibodies in glass syringe vials, tapioca pearls, sunflower seeds, metal button, almond extract, paper mache, wood, acrylic, plaster
The relationships between time and space are further explored in Mycoplasma Altar. This tall, domed gelatin mold sits atop a golden altar, referencing the shape of a traditional gelatin mold, however, more organic. The gelatin is semi-transparent, allowing its internal structure to be visible, and the placement of the objects inside recalls the internal structures of antibodies. In this sculpture, Franklin has molded the “antibody” into a shape associated with consumption. This conception of a consumable bio-organic material reflects treatments undergone by Franklin, and often takes shape in her work in varying ways. Gelatin is a material Franklin uses often to express this idea, as it itself is a consumable, bio-organic material used for both bio-tech and domestic consumption in the form of pill capsules and Jell-o. The shape of this gelatin sculpture reflects that of a 1950’s Jell-o mold, further conflating the sculpture with consumption. Yet in the places one would conventionally find fruit suspended in place, maybe a maraschino cherry or chunk of pineapple floating in lime green, Franklin has arranged various pills, syringes, flowers, and thorns. The sculpture is filled with delicate bouquets of biotech and natural material suspended in time and space. Syringes filled with antibodies point upwards around a ring of foraged rose thorns, and a bouquet of daisies emerges from the interior of the gelatin. The bouquet is crowned by kidney beans floating around a metal button. The principles of mass and the relationships between its different forms, space, and time are at the forefront of this sculpture. Gelatin’s natural properties allow the sculpture to behave against conventional expectations of matter and mass. The substance melts when left out, and Franklin allowed this process to occur throughout the course of the exhibition to make visible the transformation of organic material, a process which occurs often in disabled bodies. While it suspends the sculpture’s internal bouquets, the sculpture’s shape simultaneously decomposes, and its structural integrity gives way as time progresses. The sculpture has firm external boundaries, yet its transparency puts the internal elements on display. The flower petals and leaves appear to be floating in space, beans, nuts, and bolts float without the constraints of gravity, yet they are all ultimately constrained within the boundaries of the gelatin. These contrasts of conventional experience create a version of reality in the sculpture which connects to the realities of crip time. The patterns within the gelatin mold are delicately arranged and pleasing to the eye, again engaging the decorative arts. Beans, bolts, tapioca pearls, and sunflower seeds are arranged within the bottom of the sculpture in a decorative border, and the scalloped edges of the mold seem adorned by the materials which lay inside. The decorative arts are usually associated with femininity, and here, the inclusion of their stylistic proponents assists in exploring domestic ideals of care as they relate to disability.
Image ID: The uppermost photograph features Amoebic Self Portrait of Pharmaceutical Preservation Methodologies, 2020 10 x 10 x 2 inches [25 x 25 x 5 cm] UV print on glazed ceramic. The lower photograph features Hemichrome Plate, 2020 12 x 11 x 2 inches [30 ½ x 28 x 5 cm] UV print on glazed ceramic.
Franklin’s last segment of the exhibition, Hemichrome Plate and Amoebic Self Portrait of Pharmaceutical Preservation Methodologies resemble decorative ceramic plates. The first in the series, Hemichrome Plate, also features a collaged composition made from found items. A syringe overlays a glass slipper, and white flowers surround the two. Phrases like “TNF,” “DNA,” and “RNA Velocity” are featured along the hexagonal border of the plate, and the color palette invokes warm tones often associated with the style of the psychedelia movement. The second plate, Amoebic Self Portrait of Pharmaceutical Preservation Methodologies, features more imagery associated with both biotech and bio-ritual.
New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing was Franklin’s first solo exhibition in the United States. Her work spreads a wide variety of mediums, methodologies, and practices, but shares a purpose of visibility. Through her work, Franklin is able to honor the different aspects of her experience and extend reverence towards them. By making her personal narrative visible through her work, Franklin’s art is demonstrative of the politics behind it. Alice Wong knows the power of storytelling and personal narrative as activism, as referenced in Year of the Tiger, and Franklin’s work provides different methodologies for a similar motive– one of visibility and respect.
The links below include interviews with Sharona Franklin referenced in the article, exhibition descriptions of New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing, and additional resources for disabled artists. Check them out!