First appeared in the Boston Globe.
CAN ART ILLUMINATE medicine? The exhibit “Pulse: Art, Healing, and Transformation,” on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art until Aug. 31, features an installation designed by the Brazilian artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS in 1996. Called “Untitled (Placebo),” the piece consists of a floor strewn with glittering, foil-wrapped candies, which visitors are invited to eat-as they apparently have, since the original 1,000-pound allotment seems much reduced.
I saw the show with Anne Harrington, a professor of the history of science at Harvard and editor of the 1997 collection “The Placebo Effect: An Interdisciplinary Exploration.” She talked about how what people think they’re getting when they take a placebo can change, even in a short time.
“In the late 1980s and early ‘90s,” she said, “people with AIDS had nothing except hope and the stubborn capacity not to give up. There was an epidemic of fear along with the virus. AIDS sufferers felt condemned to die. In that context, a placebo becomes a thin reed to which you can cling.”
For AIDS sufferers back then, the placebo was a synonym for hope. But with the development of new antiretroviral drugs, medicine can offer more than Just hope. The placebo, as Harrington pointed out, has taken on different connotations. “Now,” she noted, “if you have AIDS, and you go into a clinical trial, you ask, ‘Am I getting the drug that might heal me or am I getting a placebo that won’t?’ The placebo, rather than being the only thing giving hope in a grim and cheerless context, becomes a bitter pill.”
Suddenly, Gonzalez-Torres’s candies seemed a more complex offering than their sweet, pineapple flavor might suggest.