Life in America

I am walking along 21st Street toward 11th Avenue to see one exhibition which takes place in three different art galleries. Extractions, the name of one part of the exhibition, shows bronze sculptures made from images of cancer tumors by caraballo-farman, an artistic duo who have worked together for over a decade.

Leo Caraballo had been diagnosed with cancer. After encounters with doctors, oncologists, medical institutions and medical insurance agents, her cancer went into remission.

Caraballo, who invited her doctors, surgeons, and bronze sculpture foundry workers to the opening, is a socially perceptive photographer. “Visitations,” her past work, faintly echoing Diane Arbus, documents aspects of death and the funerary rituals connected with this universal passage.



Abouali Farmanfarmaian, has just completed his doctorate on cryonics; his dissertation, Secular Immortal, might have informed this project. He is also a film producer ( “Vegas: Based on a true story”: [2009]); and a calculating photographer.

caraballo-farman have made several projects together. This current collaboration, Extractions, is the height of their artistic production. Their stunningly beautiful bronze sculptures are unique in contemporary art world-wide. She is from Buenos Aires and he’s from Tehran, the center of the Axis of Evil.

Extractions evolved from diagnosis-conception to completion in about 18 months: caraballo-farman, like many critical artists in New York, have avoided the shallow ambition prevalent within the arts. The current work can be fully understood if one follows their production sequence: Leo Caraballo’s genetic code instructs her body to produce treatable cancer; after exhausting discussions with surgeons they convert the MRI images into 3D models, then they introduce medical scientific knowledge and imagery to bronze sculpture-making experts in a foundry. Imagine explaining to foundry workers who normally make Statues of Liberty to now make sculptures of tumors. I was told that the foundry workers got deep satisfaction from making their bronzes.

The MRI images are what fascinated them. They could now see her actual tumors. Historically, patients haven’t had an image of what is transpiring inside their bodies. The question emerged: Could they convert Caraballo’s cancer into art?

The artists got a Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a residency at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center.


caraballo-farman describe their process for the Eyebeam section of their exhibition:


“Ruins (Carcinomas), highlights breast cancer’s links to carcinogens in our everyday environment. Depicting fallen urban landscapes over-run with tumors, the pieces are based on breast cancer tumor forms, imaged and “digitally removed” through a special process devised by caraballo-farman, that combines Magnetic Resonance Imaging and rapid prototyping. The grey ‘support material’ used by 3D printers to build up a form is generally meant to be removed. But [we] used Eyebeam’s 3D printer in such a way as to maximize the architectural form of the printer’s support structures and then hacked at the structures to partially reveal the white tumor embedded.”


They were stopped in their tracks when they considered the entire image of the plastic surrounding a model of the cancer tumour inside. In not removing the 3D printer support structures, the artists faced something they did not predict: clear and direct models of high-rise buildings resembling the World Trade Towers during 9/11. With screw-drivers and other instruments, the buildings were artistically pock-marked.



The Eyebeam Window Gallery exhibits a white field filled with these high-rise towers (20 x 27 cm) with hidden models of tumors inside which we can’t see due to the faceless, horrifying, opaque grey plastic. Depending on one’s point of view, this unpredictable metaphor is accurate, or inanely simple. I walk away from the window feeling unsettled: I am a Canadian-Pakistani looking at models of buildings being 9/11-ed.

Their project comes to fruition at Ramis Barquet Gallery, 532 West 24th Street (very near Eyebeam Window Gallery).

The intelligence of “caraballo-farman / Object Breast Cancer” is to have installed their total exhibition in three contiguous galleries. One sees the metaphor of  9/11 devastation at Eyebeam; then one has to walk outside for about 300 meters to see the larger tumor sculptures at Ramis Barquet Gallery. What was inside the grey models are now larger bronze sculptures, approximately,  40 cm x 50 cm x 25 cm. The gallery swarms with 8 such pieces.

And,  just 30 meters west of Ramis the artists have set up a one-stand jewelry shop at Sebastian+Barquet Gallery, 544 West 24th Street. The tumor necklaces and worry beads are about 6 cm x 6 cm x 1.5 cm. To magnify the irony of  selling tumors to America, the artists formed a company, Object Breast Cancer, and chose a loquacious blond to do the sales pitch. I chatted with her while looking at the sharply lit jewelry. I liked her fresh, blue sky attitude. An intellectual from Haifa, standing nearby suggested that these jewels were the 21st century’s equivalent of The Evil Eye. A percentage of sales goes to cancer research.


At Ramis Gallery, I face the bronzes with fear and confusion. Am I actually going to see beauty in all this? If so, why? What could be the point of using one’s cancer to make art?

The edgeless bronze sculptures, set in front of white walls sit under the bathetic gallery lights. The tribe of metal totems hover over their stands; most have a solid, super-heavy mass core with voluminous wings of thick-and-occasionally-thin chapati-like appendages jutting out into space; there are solar flares ejaculating into the sky; there are things that flutter out of caves like waves of smooth endoplasmic recticumlum which, as one walks around, become multiple heads of Rabelaisian Canada Geese. There are holes in the cores from which there mightn’t be an escape; we see a diagram of CERN traced in a flying arm of deep brown metal; and, here is David’s finger extending out to the cool North Atlantic; in adjoining sculptures I see faces in the shapes of maps of Afghanistan and Tajikistan staring into celestial history. And, more holes, and more caves.


Cancer flows around and around these rewarding sculptures. But what’s the reward? Is the reward to know that some thing beautiful comes from something nasty? This isn’t very deep, is it? A chicken is a beautiful bird. So is roast chicken. Walter Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, (1940), said this about things that are beautiful:

“The assets of culture are not only a document of culture without being at the same time a document of barbarity. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another”.

There is a reason why these artists have calibrated walking time breaks from one exhibition space to the other. Roughly 100 – 300 meters separate the exhibition spaces. This physical spacing gives the beholder time to understand roast chicken and its discontents, or to connect barbarity with civilization. One walks out into the smiling crowds visiting hundreds of other openings in the area. We’re all having a smoke outside. It’s Thursday night in Chelsea, a light drizzle infects the October evening. I’ve walked from models of 9/11-ed buildings to the Bronze Age.

The last time I had such a shock of beauty was when I saw American film-maker Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Eye, (1971: 32 minutes); a documentary shot in a Pittsburg morgue. As with Brakhage’s work, one can’t escape the root source of beauty – dead bodies which become mysterious things hovering in introspective, resplendent space. With precision, his camera trembles over the cool bodies, some with three-degree burns; some car crash victims; some bodies pock-marked with gun shots. The master’s documentary states: please, try not to run from the death that I’m showing you. If you walk out of the cinema, you might lose an appreciation of elegance; lose a sense of elegance and you’ll gain a sense of empty ambition.

caraballo-farman, have guided the audience in a similar way but without being as confrontational as Brakhage: Brakhage used a projection booth, an audience sitting in a darkened room, and a white screen on which to view the slow, methodical cutting open of dead bodies flickering by at 24 frames per second. The only way the beholder could wipe the trance would be to leave the darkened room.

caraballo-farman have, with unusual expertise, made their challenging project relevant to gallery curators, as well as oncologists, surgeons and doctors. The beholder can break the trance proposed by these two artists also: just walk out of the galleries, eat a street-cart meal made by The Halal Brothers and the viewing experience will go into remission. We’re ephemeral entities: these bronzes have a decay rate, but a slower rate than the authority of the flesh that produced them.


Julian Samuel is a friend of caraballo-farman.


caraballo-farman sites:


Regarding the Horror




Gallery locations:


caraballo-farman / Object Breast Cancer:


Ramis Banquet Gallery

532 West 24th Street, New York, NY


Opening Night Performance and Reception

Thursday, October 13th, 6-8 pm


Eyebeam Window Gallery

540 West 21st Street, New York, NY

Ruins (Carcinomas)

Thursday, October 13th, 6-8pm



544 West 24th Street, New York, NY

OBC Jewelry Launch

October 13th, 6-8pm


Julian Samuel is a Montreal filmmaker and painter.