New Art in Austin 20 to Watch

Amanda Douberley


Sarah Sudhoff’s large-scale photographs present an unflinching, first-hand account of illness. Following the artist’s surgery for cervical cancer in 2004, she immediately began to investigate the disease, its effects on her, and on others. Over many months, Sudhoff eventually turned the camera from friends and models onto herself. Her self-portraits make public the private experience of coping with illness, and at the same time reveal the relationships between medicine, ritual, and magical thinking. 

Exam 2 and Clean 2 bracket Sudhoff’s journey: the first was taken in her gynecologist’s office, the second in a morgue. In both photographs, the artist gazes out at the viewer from the center of the frame. The cable release cord is visible in each image, a kind of umbilical cord that tethers Sudhoff to the camera and to the world on the other side of the lens. The cord also serves as evidence that Sudhoff took the photographs in isolation—she shows us a private moment experienced in solitude that is nevertheless intended for public consumption. 

Both images represent ritual acts: one proscribed, the other less familiar. In Exam 2, Sudhoff wears a blue plaid hospital gown that hangs open at the front, exposing her breast and inner thigh. Her stockinged feet rest in the exam table’s stirrups, and she sits up, gripping the sides of a green vinyl cushion. Is Sudhoff’s look one of resignation following her diagnosis, or is she waiting for test results, or even for the exam to start? Perhaps the answer depends on how each viewer sees her annual exam. A Pap smear tests for the presence of cervical cancer. In a sense, finding out that she has cervical cancer is a fact the test’s subject sets out to know. At the same time, undergoing this annual test seems subconsciously preventative, as if by subjecting oneself to the exam, one can actually avoid illness. 

For Clean 2, Sudhoff gained access to a hospital morgue and bathed in the room’s large, stainless steel sink. The photograph is both a sign of what could have been as well as a scene of ritual rebirth. We see Sudhoff—nude—sitting upright in the sink, a halo of plastic tubing surrounding her head. To her right sits a metal bowl, to her left, an array of metal implements. These items are common enough in a morgue, but here become symbols for Sudhoff’s surgery: the tools used to cut open her body and cut out the diseased flesh; the bowl where a portion of her cervix was momentarily placed before being put into another container and eventually discarded. 

Exam 2 and Clean 2 are part of a larger series of photographs that Sudhoff has titled “Repository.” In so doing, the artist highlights key aspects of her experience, as well as how the photographs function within her own process of recovery. By definition, a “repository” is a container in which something is stored; a source of extensive, detailed knowledge of a particular subject; a burial vault; as well as somebody in whom something is confided. All four designations seem to apply here, but especially the last. Sudhoff has confided in her photographs, and through her photographs, in us. 

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