Hysteria, as attributed to women, is a history of negligence and pain. It is a history of male authority pitting a woman against her own mysterious and unruly body through religious, medical, and psychological gazes. Medicine was hijacked as a cult of misogyny not to cure, but to punish the patients and invalidate their experience because they dared to show discomfort. The classic symptoms of hysteria strategically identified and oppressed women, diagnosing them as being ill for having such natural urges as sexual desire, apathy, passion, and rage. Truly, it seemed as though courage and the basic desire to express were sinisterly commandeered as sickness, almost as if thinking itself would not be considered as belonging to feminine nature. Cries of hysteria seemed to locate women who refused such traditional roles as quiet and obedient wives or mothers — those seeking a higher quality of life through the pursuit of education, respect, and a voice within society — and rather deemed them altogether abnormal, ultimately subjecting them to the systematic torture that ensued around a historical diagnosis of hysteria.
Women deemed unfit by patriarchy (often feminists, intellectuals, or witches, as they liked to call them in the past) were first investigated, judged, killed and burned, circumcised, and later in modern progressive society sent to asylums and forced to undergo treatments including obligatory bed rest, force-feeding, seclusion and sensory deprivation (refraining from tasks like reading, writing or even conversation).
Notes on Hysteria reacts to the historical use of photography (to document, generalise and sexualise the illness) as well as to myths and curing methods. Staged portrait archives of patients treated for hysteria became an object of study of what a mad woman looks like. The desire to create a universal theory of a forever-mysterious diagnosis captured patients in prison-like portraits as well as full-body semi-undressed poses of hysterical attacks, thus conjuring notions of religious or sexual ecstasy. The space between those in front and those beyond the camera, the one that is looking and the one who is looked at amounts to a deep gap, one filled with inequality and discrimination.
Emotion is not a weakness. Ambition is not an illness. They cannot be cured by semen, exorcism, or forced imprisonment. They are incurable virtues that need to be treated with respect, not violence. The word hysteria has a long and painful history as a form of suppression and control; for example, calling someone hysterical means they ought to be silent, less loud or angry, and less aware. This submissive designation exposes someone’s fear of what the other person may say, something that may just be the truth. In 1980 Hysteria was deleted from the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But did the attitudes around hysteria actually resolve, or have they simply taken a new form? What is normal behaviour actually - and who defines it? Why are those who challenge authority labeled as disturbed and diseased? For what reason are women who express dissent and passion still mocked today?
2019: Musica Sanae: Museum Kesselhaus Hergzberge, Berlin: curated by Studio Labour