X-Rays of Our Society: Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė and Pakui Hardware

Text by Inga Lāce

The first demonstration of x-ray equipment in Vilnius took place in April 1896 following just a year after the discovery of x-rays in Wurzburg, Germany by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen–somewhat accidentally as with many of the scientific advances. Soon after that first demonstration the pioneering radiology units were opened in Vilnius and Kaunas, the new science entered medicine education and their application developed.¹ X-rays produce images of internal tissues, bones and organs on film and media through invisible electromagnetic energy beams. Performed for diagnosing tumors or bone injuries they remain a cornerstone of the modern medicine.

The X-ray procedure with the necessary technical equipment, the patient and doctor at work, as well as the X-ray image itself, features prominently in several of the most renowned works by the Lithuanian artist Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė (1933-2007) who developed interest in medicine in the late 1960s. This was an engagement she pursued throughout her career moving further onto the questions of old age, and sickness and loneliness viewed through the lens of alienating hospital wards.

Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė, X-Ray, 1977. Oil on canvas, 150×170 cm. Courtesy of MO Museum

Her series of hospital and medicine related work coincide with the general techno-utopian mood of the Soviet Union where artists’ research trips into the spaces of science and industry, like the facilities of nuclear reactors or factories were commonplace, serving the Soviet propaganda program. While the Khrushchev era (1953-1964) brought about changes into the dynamic of the Cold War with a renewed investment into scientific achievements, and a more liberalized environment for art, the following Breznev’s time saw an economic progress slowly entering stagnation. The positive propaganda did not cease, however. In fact, for decades, the party proclaimed self-congratulatory that socialist medicine was the best in the world in the meantime failing to invest adequately in health care. Short life expectancy was just one of the factors mirroring the health system disregarding the needs of the Soviet citizens.² Rožanskaitė did not praise the achievements of Soviet medicine even though she did use them as subjects. Her work transcended the logic of representation of success and introduced tension in the procedure hall and frailty of the examined body.

Her X-Ray series highlight an important part of the medical system– diagnostics emphasizing the encounter between the patient and the doctor, and their entanglement with the technical equipment. In the painting X-ray (1977) a young woman is laying on the table undergoing the procedure. Above her is an enlarged fragment of her X-ray photograph. Sinking in on her body the depiction looks like a strange dream she may be having, a shadow of a tree or indeed a lung X-ray branching into small capillaries. Medical information is language understood by doctors who will translate it into health or disease, the borders between which will depend on the body politics of the time.

Another two works of the X-Ray series bring forward the patient–doctor relationship, emphasizing the power dynamics between the two–the lay person and the scientific expert. While in the X-Ray Therapy (1977) a woman with her head brought into the machine is half naked and a cold analytic gaze of another woman rests observantly on her nude vulnerable body, the X-Ray Room (1983) concerns a doctor examining an X-ray while the patient is sitting nearby uneasily. In both, the body of the patient is uncomfortable, insecure, the gaze and the body language of the doctor on the contrary is firm stressing once more the power the scientific knowledge holds over our bodies. The X-Ray is essentially a photography, but it’s scanning the body much deeper than any photograph would ever do, going quite literally beyond one’s skin.

Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė, X-Ray Room, 1983 . Oil on canvas, 150 × 130 cm. Courtesy of The Lithuanian National Museum of Art
Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė, X-Ray Therapy, 1977. Oil on canvas, 140 × 160 cm. Courtesy of The Lithuanian National Museum of Art

Another series of works Heart Surgery I and II (1974) depict operations taking place within a scenography of a white draped cloth. The red blood-filled tubes cross the drapery in one corner of the Heart Surgery II while a hand reaches out in the other. Heart, like a wound in the center the actual operation is a spheric looking hole–a dark brown opening–surrounded by blue cloth and medical scissors and large stitches that are stemming from the wound, placed rhythmically, almost decoratively. With a clear viewpoint from above, both paintings remind us of operation theaters used for medical education, at the same time rather abstracting than revealing the aching bodies or the medical procedures themselves.

Even though sometimes absent from Rožanskaitė’s spaces, people and their relationship with each other and with technology were of utmost importance for her–how the patient is putting their body under the observation of the doctor, and the machine; the distant alienation created by the medical equipment, and at the same time–its inevitable entanglement with our bodies.³ The simultaneous hope and helplessness we perceive in her work, is something immediately recognizable from our own doctors’ appointments. Through the fragility of the human body Rožanskaitė commented on larger ills of the Soviet society, not only concerning the precarity of the medical system, but the life and freedoms of the citizens of the Soviet system where bureaucracy of one’s life could be comparable to the waiting room of a hospital or worth even–the whole socialist experiment–to an operation hall.⁴ This analogy is closely related to her own experience, as Rožanskaitė, as a child, was sent to Siberia with her family–her mother lost a child on the way, and many people didn’t return at all. This experience of death and survival, adds another layer to the ailing bodies she depicts–failing yet yearning of being cured.

Rožanskaitė’s paintings of medical spaces and operations served as inspiration to the Lithuanian artist duo Pakui Hardware (founded by Neringa Černiauskaitė and Ugnius Gelguda in 2014) when they worked on the trilogy of projects “Virtual Care” (2021), “Absent Touch” (2021) and “The Host” (2021) putting at the forefront the contemporary implications of care and its intersections with technology. Pakui Hardware have long been interested in biologic processes such as metabolism or bodies and their medical enhancement growing more ubiquitous and elaborate in our techno- capitalist world.

Pakui Hardware, Virtual Care, 2021. Exhibition view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK. Photos: Rob Harris. Courtesy of the artists and carlier | gebauer (Berlin / Madrid)

Their installation Absent Touch transformed the gallery environment akin to a clinical surgery room yet humans whom we imagine inhabiting it–the doctors, nurses and the patient– are nowhere to be seen. Attached to three metallic “hands” reaching out from the ceiling are the colored rounded glass sculptures, looking like enlarged examination mirrors or surgical lamps. Where the table with the patient is supposed to be, we see a set of stands that rely on metallic “legs”, they are coated first with a layer of fabric and then covered with plastic shields. A fragile glass object rests carefully in the folds of each of the covers. Nothuman for sure, but not fully animal or technological either, these installations remain an ambiguous yet recognizable presence. Today we don’t need to see the scissors to imagine a cut. It can be done with a laser, programmed digitally without a blink of real flesh. Not seeing limbs or even instruments we can still imagine an operation room; however, a much broader set of procedures can be due in the space that Pakui Hardware has created collapsing the human, the non-human animal or technological looking into a future to only be witnessed.

Through varied material, shape and color, the work also brings forward the tension–purely materially and associatively–between the warmth and fragility, and the mechanic coldness existing simultaneously in the medical spaces. The metal shapes of the “hands” and “legs” next to the crafty imprecision of the glass objects, fragile and warm is but one example from the installation. The room itself creates a sense of encounter akin to one in the hospital where the idea of care and warmth is often physically manifested through the alienation of the actual rooms and medical equipment involved in the care giving processes. This division however is blurrier today instead of based on simple oppositions, according to the researcher Jeannette Pols in her study Care at a Distance: On the Closeness of Technology. It is rather that which is readily accessible that will serve as care instead of warmth of a physical encounter–in opposition a technological one–if the former is unattainable. But is it really so, Pakui Hardware still inquire.⁵

Another important aspect of the medical spaces besides the actual spaces–the architecture and buildings themselves–are the views on healing. When scholars started to analyze the nineteenth-century invention of the modern hospital around a half century ago, they posited a crucial change: a shift from care to cure–the modern hospital was dedicated to curing the sick. Today however, the healthcare reformers are trying to reverse that history advocating a shift from cure to care.⁶

This shift is readily present in the work of Pakui Hardware–through the virtual aspects of care. Opened at the autumn peek of the pandemic, in November of 2020, Absent Touch raised an important issue – the absence of touch we were encouraged to follow and practice to keep ourselves and the others safe from the virus. Absence of course, was present already before the pandemic and entered Pakui Hardware’s work through their research into the technology of telemedicine. This began to be practiced as a form of healthcare in the late 1960s due to the needs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) when the cosmonauts the funding for accompanying health professionals was cut and a solution for care and diagnostics at a distance had to be found. The first experiments took place on earth instead of space and thus actually contributed to the benefit of much larger communities than just the cosmonauts.⁷

Possibly, the remote coordination, telemedicine, and virtual consultations became more commonplace during the two years of the pandemic, than during all the other years of the development of this methodology, thus Pakui Hardware are tapping into a purposeful solution of our medicine in the present, but more importantly for the near future.

While Pakui Hardware’s view towards the future is bodies inevitably enhanced with technology, to put it simply, possibly living longer and healthier, Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė at her time turned towards the ageing bodies (works Yellow, 1991; Green Table, 1990). It is not that dissimilar as a subject matter however the depictions are radically different. Through their series of work Extrakorporal (2018) Pakui Hardware worked with the idea of self-rejuvenation, search of a prolonged lifetime and immortality, looking at human efforts at countering mortality. The sculptures they created embodied the collation of two worldviews, and two possible solutions, really, – that of shamanistic transcendence and a immortality through injecting Turritopsis jellyfish, the so called immortal jellyfish. In the paintings of Rožanskaitė, approaching end of the life inevitable and determined, whereas Pakui Hardware are questioning its preventability. What if it isn’t inevitable? Rožanskaitė’s hospital wards are somber, while the environment around the Extrakorporal practically glowing.

Both artists are acutely aware of the ills of their time and mirror something important of the societies they are living in–Rožanskaitė commenting on the hypocrisy of the repressive Soviet regime where medicine was technologically unadvanced, Pakui Hardware–during a time of global pandemic, and deadly wars, but an endless choice of medical advancement which is simply inaccessible to many due to eroding social care systems. If not an immediate solution, the images they produce can be used for making a diagnosis and setting up a program for further care.

Pakui Hardware, Absent Touch, 2020. Installation view at carlier | gebauer gallery, Berlin Courtesy of the artist and carlier | gebauer (Berlin / Madrid)
Pakui Hardware, Extrakorporal, 2018. Exhibition view at Bielefelder Kunstverein. Courtesy of MO Museum, Vilnius

Inga Lāce is C-MAP Central and Eastern Europe Fellow at MoMA, New York. She has been curator at the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art since 2012 and curator of the Latvian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale 2019 with the artist Daiga Grantina (co-curated with Valentinas Klimašauskas). She has also been co-curator of the Allied – Kyiv Biennial 2021 (as part of the East Europe Biennial Alliance) and co-curator of the 7th-10th editions of the contemporary art festival SURVIVAL KIT (with Jonatan Habib Engqvist in 2017 and Angels Miralda and Solvita Krese in 2018– 19, Riga). She is co-curator of a research and exhibition project ‘Portable Landscapes’ which examined the art and life of the Latvian exile and emigrant communities throughout the twentieth century with exhibitions at Villa Vassilieff, Paris, Latvian National Art Museum, Riga (2018), James Gallery at CUNY, New York (2019) and an upcoming publication. Lāce has curated exhibitions at the Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź; Framer Framed, Amsterdam; Konsthall C, Stockholm; and Pori Art Museum, among other places. Lāce was curatorial fellow at de Appel, Amsterdam (2015–2016) organising a programme and editing a publication on the intersection of art and ecology titled Instituting Ecologies.

  1. Lithuanian Radiologists’ Association: a historical glimpse, BY ALGIDAS BASEVICIUS AND SAULIUS LUKOŠEVICIUS
  2. Joy Neumeyer, “The political history of concealing illness, from Brezhnev to Trump”, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/10/09/political-history-concealing-illness-brezhnev-trump/
  3. Aistė Paulina Virbickaitė. http://www.mmcentras.lt/kuriniai/sirdies-operacija-ii/2587
  4. Catalogue concept: Laima Kreivytė. Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė, Rentgenogramos/X-Rays (Lithuanian Art Museum, 2013), 19.
  5. Pakui Hardware (Neringa Černiauskaitė), “Hesitant Hand”, mumok.at, accessed July 28, 2022. https://www.mumok.at/en/blog/pakui-hardware-hesitant-hand
  6. David Theodore, “From Care to Cure and Back Again; David Theodore”, e-flux Architecture, accessed July 28, 2022. https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/treatment/410320/from-care-to-cure-and-back-again/
  7. https://www.nasa.gov/content/a-brief-history-of-nasa-s-contributions-to-telemedicine
This article appears in full in BODY AS A JOURNAL, NO. 4.