In Single Use Only, Sudhoff presents enlarged, detailed views of the autoclaved medical waste flanking a single bench cast from recycled waste and cement. Large-scale color photographs accentuate the wealth of surface textures and colors she pursued. Highlighting the saturated purple bulging mass of a cooked latex glove, the folded and bubbling pink plastics, or the vein-like wrinkles on a biohazard bag that had melted into itself, her works transform autoclaved waste into full-bodied, graceful abstractions. Her brilliant, predominately red and pink compositions reference the very organs, skin, cellular structures, arteries, and heart valves that have been potentially touched, cured, or protected by the medical products before they were melted. Two of the photographs depict compacted blocks of medical waste, documenting the moment prior to either the waste’s shredding and recycling or transfer to a landfill.
Once sterilized in autoclave, the syringes, lancets, IV bags, test tubes, gauze, and gloves-items often imprinted with the text labeled as “Single Use Only”-are all able to be recycled. This sterilized medical waste can be burned as energy to power homes and hospitals, and the ash from burning can be collected and used as an additive for cement and other construction material. For Single Use Only, Sudhoff incinerated a sampling of shredded, autoclaved medical waste and mixed the resulting ashes to create the cement in the installation’s bench. Sitting on the piece of furniture becomes an act of empathy; it is an intimate connection to the stuff that touched illness, crime, or death-and is an atypical experience in an American culture that tends to deny death and decay. The exhibition serves as a visual and material parallel to the act of organ transplants or the act of recycling parts of the body-a delineation of the new energy that comes from sickness or death.
ABOUT THE PROCESS
Single Use Only is a new chapter in Sudhoff’s examination of the body and mortality in medical contexts through an extended investigation of the life of hospital waste. To ensure tools and other hazardous materials such as IV bags, latex gloves, syringes, or biohazard bags are sterilized before transfer to a landfill or recycling plant, they must be processed by facilities called autoclaves. Autoclaves measure the precise temperature and pressure necessary to appropriately treat the waste through a process of pressurized steam cooking. She obtained access to a Texas facility, where she photographed containers of waste right after sterilization. Using a medium-format film camera, she recorded waste in large steel dumpsters that had reached temperatures up to 262 degrees Farenheit during 90 minutes of sterilization. She used available light in the autoclave and a long exposure time of four to eight seconds per shot, with exactly three minutes at each dumpster to circulate and record sections of hot waste before it had to be transferred to a compacter so the container could be used for the next batch.
Access to this autoclave, like many of Sudhoff’s projects, required special permission and specific levels of access that required months to obtain, given that the material is hazardous before sterilization and that it might contain confidential patient information. She shares that her “requests for access to medical environments are rejected 90 percent of the time, yet this rejection just fuels the fire to keep pursuing a specific topic and redefines my purpose and focus. I know most people would give up after the second or third rejection, but knowing this keeps me motivated.”