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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Shana Moulton’s MoMA Show Is for Anyone Who Has Googled a Symptom

More than 20 years ago, Shana Moulton created an alter ego named Cynthia—a hypochondriac who wades through WebMD articles, shops for New Age healing products, and becomes overwhelmed by options and information that take turns providing comfort and alienating her from her own body. Cynthia—played by Moulton in a wig—is the star of the artist’s video series Whispering Pines (2002–2019), which has only grown more piercing in its commentary in the intervening decades; now, algorithms observe our bodily anxieties and target them with ads.

A rejoinder to this series, titled Meta/Physical Therapy, is now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and loosely relays Moulton’s recent experience undergoing physical therapy, hoping to alleviate hip and shoulder issues. It’s a funny, colorful, engaging work sure to be relatable to anyone who has ever Googled a mysterious symptom and then felt overwhelmed. Below, Moulton talks about the work, and how Cynthia has grown over the years.

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There’s a lot of continuity in Whispering Pines, but how do you see the project as having evolved over time?

In the beginning, I thought of Cynthia as a character separate from me. She grew out of these dresses I made in graduate school, with medical devices and crutches embedded in the fabric. I started wondering what kind of person would wear those types of garments. Then I started to blend this person with anecdotes from my own life, or my mother’s or grandmother’s or aunt’s life. Soon I realized Cynthia was just a great vehicle for me to delve into anything I was interested in, like the love-hate relationship I have with beauty and wellness products, and especially to the advertising around them.

Growing up, commercials were one of my favorite things. I used to think I’d grow up to work in marketing, because I love that language. For a while I was trying to get rid of Cynthia, because I didn’t want to get stuck in one idea. But then I gave into her. At a certain point, I realized how interesting it would be to see her age. Now I think, “this sucks!” I don’t like seeing her age—it’s not fun. But even though aging isn’t fun, it’s useful for me to take a step back from what I’m going through and consider it through this character.

You’ve also made works express skepticism toward the ways healing has become a kind of industry—long before there were things like Goop or Instagram ads for doctors with cute interior design. What has it been like to witness that industry grow, and how has that impacted your work? 

When I was a child, the healing industry looked more like Suzanne Somers and her ThighMaster. In my personal life, that’s always where I would spend any extra money I had—yoga classes that I couldn’t afford, or massage therapy, or even past-lives regression therapy. I’m constantly looking for healing or comfort. At the same time I know that journey or search is usually bound to fail. I’ve never been able to achieve peak fitness or comfort, though I’m sure yoga helped some. Often, it’s basic things that are most helpful, things don’t cost that much money. But still, here I am, sitting at my desk, surrounded by all these tinctures, like an adaptogenic brain tonic. I haven’t found the product that does quite the ultimate thing for me yet, but I’m still searching. I’m always going to be searching.

I really appreciate how relatable Cynthia is and how you don’t moralize or demonize her, or make her the butt of the joke. You’re critical of the wellness industry and the way it preys on certain anxieties, and you capture the ways that online information and so many options can be overwhelming. But the work is funny too. Tell me about your approach to humor.

I hope I’m making fun of myself, but with a knowing wink. I know that I’m falling prey to all these industries, and that these industries are on a spectrum. I do think some of them are great, and people deserve to make money from teaching yoga or whatever. But some are snake oil. Cynthia and I fall for a range of them, and will never stop. I’m probably going to cycle through desire, hope, and failure forever. Feelings of curiosity and optimism are met with that overwhelming feeling of there being so many options and so much information. It’s like shopping for products that you want to be the answer to all your problems. Reading the label can be so exciting, like a little high. 

A rainbow video installation centers on a woman with streamers attached to her ceiling fan.

View of “Shana Moulton: Meta/Physical Therapy,” 2024, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Photo Jonathan Dorado

How about the seating you designed for the show? So much video art gets shown without any seating, but it makes sense to include with your work, which often seems to ask, “how do I get comfortable in my own body?”

When the curator suggested thinking about seating, the first thing I thought of was the seating at the Whole Foods in the Lower East Side. That sort of stadium-like seating is this great place to rest and get a snack when you’re walking around Manhattan in the cold. I wanted to provide something like that, a place for people to hang out in the museum.

In the new work, we see Cynthia confronting inaccessibility in the form of a staircase she can’t climb because she’s wheeled, and a gate that she can’t open because, when she’s outside, she wears this kind of quilted bubble. Has accessibility always been a theme in your work? 

Not really, or at least not in an obvious way—though Cynthia is often trapped in her domestic environment. Early on, a lot of my work came out of hypochondria, or from being around a lot of relatives going through things in the hospital. Now I feel like all that work was kind of predictive. 

I’ve become unable to use my body in the way I used to. I filmed this piece on the campus where I teach, at UC Santa Barbara. Recently I got a mobility scooter, because it’s such a large campus. I have arthritis and was about to get a hip replacement, but then I cancelled it because it got better. Still, I can’t walk very far. Using my mobility scooter, I’ve become so much more aware of how inaccessible so many things are. I found myself mapping out an intricate route around campus—and trying not to be late! It’s really challenging. So I put Cynthia in this personal steam sauna tent that fits on top of the mobility scooter—something I’ve been imagining for a while.

It also seems essential that Cynthia is a woman.

The bulk of the advertising and marketing I’m talking about is geared toward women. Keeping up appearances is 90 percent of the job! More recently, confronting perimenopause, women’s health has been on my mind. I’m actually participating in a study on campus researching the ways hormones affect the brain in midlife. I went and had an MRI, which I used in the piece. I’m happy to participate because there’s so little research on menopause—a stage that can be really disturbing and difficult or, in some cases, empowering. This study, and this lack of understanding, are both big parts of this narrative. You can see it in the menstrual cups and the lava lamp.

I was also curious about the garment Cynthia wears, a pastel pink gown that looks like something between a hospital gown and a nightgown.

I found this brand for really stylish hospital gowns; they are comfortable and pretty. It definitely felt like the ideal brand for Cynthia! I also wanted her room to feel like it could be something between her home office or a workout room, or maybe even a hospital room. 

What else should we know about the piece?

It’s the first time I included Tarot imagery. I’ve always been into astrology, but I hadn’t really been directly referencing either of those things, though I feel like they get hinted at. I don’t get my cards read often, because I find it kind of frightening. The same goes with astrology. I don’t like the daily horoscope. I don’t really want to know my future. My uncle was an astrologer, and he made my birth chart when I was born. He left all these cryptic notes on the birth chart, like an airplane falling, and he passed away before I got to ask him what that meant! But I really relate to thinking about potentials, and about all the ways things can go wrong. So it was fun to incorporate some of that imagery in this piece.

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