Credit Vivienne Flesher
In 2010, at age 29, the songwriter and performer Benjamin Scheuer was given a diagnosis of stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. He recounted his experience, along with other family perplexities, when he played himself in his one-man autobiographical musical, “The Lion,” which opened Off Broadway last year. In the new video “Cure,” directed by Peter Baynton and premiered here on Well, Mr. Scheuer conveys the dread that brands cancer patients, whether or not their type of disease is treatable.
As sung by a self-proclaimed optimist who has been given the good odds of an 85 percent chance of full remission, “Cure” begins with a defenseless Mr. Scheuer, supine on a bed. The camera fragments him into body parts: a mouth, a limb, a trembling torso. From an area near his heart, where a port would have been implanted, rivulets of ink streak down his arms to the tip of his fingers, down his legs to cover the soles of his feet, branching over his quivering or convulsing midriff.
The chemotherapy Mr. Scheuer received was called A-B-V-D: Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine and Dacarbazine. “Cure” depicts the chemicals striking like lightning, as if to shock the body or map it with bombed roadways, tracking a jagged terrain. The speed of the tattooing brings to mind the words “invasive” and “systemic.” We are looking at a representation of cancer treatment, but the video evokes terror at the disease’s malevolent capacity to spread quickly.
For viewers familiar with Franz Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” the calligraphy on Mr. Scheuer’s skin may recall the sentences, etched by torture machinery, on a condemned prisoner’s body during the 12 hours it takes for him to die. Remarkably, though, the tone of the singer remains less shocked or shocking, more ruefully contemplative.
In a quiet voice, Mr. Scheuer sings about learning the results of testing done after 12 treatments. Although throughout the ordeal he has been fighting panic and fear, they threaten to engulf him as he worries about ending up like his father, with cancer in his brain and his spinal cord. Clothing starts to grow over him, covering his marked body. Does his being passively clothed mean that he is being costumed for a coffin?
After the doctor informs him that the treatment has worked, after his jacket is buttoned, Mr. Scheuer finally sits up, hearing the words “You’re cured.” But the sad final tones of his voice and guitar reflect his isolation in a room with bed sheets that remain indelibly imprinted with the sinister designs.
Although “Cure” seems quite distinct from the more amiable and upbeat folk tunes in his album, “Songs from the Lion,” its hermetic room with its isolated inmate raises issues that Mr. Scheuer addressed with the photographer Riya Lerner in their book, “Between Two Spaces,” namely the alienating landscapes of treatment. (Some of their collaborative work will be on exhibit at the Leslie-Lohman Prince Street Project Space on June 7.)
Cancer patients, who must shuttle between their homes and hospitals, frequently experience the clash between familiar, comfortable environments and strange, anxiety-producing settings. Mr. Lerner explores the disparity but also the blurring of these worlds in a book composed of portraits of Mr. Scheuer interspersed with snippets of texts from his journals. For me, as for Mr. Lerner and Mr. Scheuer, the contrast involves clothing: One of the humiliations of the hospital entails my flesh being exposed in cubicles where doctors, nurses and technicians are fully clothed.
“Between Two Spaces” opens with a picture of a suited but barefooted Mr. Scheuer bending over to choose between two pairs of shoes. It concludes with him sporting a coat and hat in a snowy park. Inside his recording studio or at home he appears blanketed or costumed: “I could control, to the tiniest detail, what I wore,” he explains in a reprinted journal entry, “so the worse I felt the more care I put into the shine of my shoes, the knot of my tie.” But in a PET scan or undergoing chemotherapy, he is only partly robed or completely undressed beneath or entering massive machinery.
The cover of “Between Two Spaces” features what looks to be a soothing picture of a naked Mr. Scheuer partly submerged in a bathtub. At least in my experience, bathing in a tub occurs only in the security of home, not in the hospital. Yet the journal entry, appended to this image within the book, mentions his watching a frightening video of Japan’s tsunami: “The land is now the sea, the churning, angry ocean. Black, filled with unwilling passengers, debris, creating clouds of mist, blindness, dust dirt smoke all grey and brown, all the houses and their red roofs are squeaking clean of their foundations like boats unmoored.”
What had at first seemed a serene portrait of the artist with his eyes closed, floating on the surface of the water, now portends drowning and death. Out of the hospital, as inside it, the patient endures an inexplicable natural disaster.
To my aging eyes, the youthful vulnerability of Benjamin Scheuer makes both the video and the photographs moving. Although, unlike me, he deals with a curable disease, he resembles all cancer patients who must come to terms with the term remission. The poignancy of Mr. Scheuer’s and Mr. Lerner’s images arises from the implacable effect that estranging clinical spaces impose on previously secure domestic places.
Even the cured must take their cancer experiences home with them where, paradoxically, remission — untrustworthy as a safe haven — continues to unmoor us.
- “Living With Cancer: A Farewell to Legs”
- “Living With Cancer: Deciding About Dying”
- “Living With Cancer: Alone and Ghosted”