One day in 2003, Chloë Kogan woke up and realized she was starving herself to death. "I was an unconscious anorexic," says the petite blond woman, now a 24-year-old senior at St. Michael's College. Obese during her youth, Kogan had managed to lose the pounds healthily, she says. But once she'd started obsessively controlling her calorie intake, she couldn't stop. From 240 pounds, she fell to 90.
On the day she hit that low weight - and realized what was happening to her - Kogan asked her mother to snap pictures of her emaciated body. Those snapshots, taken with a disposable camera, have become the centerpiece of her senior art project at St. Mike's, which opens on campus this Wednesday.
From the beginning, Kogan saw the photos as a form of evidence. When she realized she had an eating disorder, a possibility she'd ignored or dismissed in the past as a "cliché," she felt a "desperation to hold on to this clarity," she says. "God only knew if I'd wake up in the dark again."
Following her recovery, Kogan moved to Vermont from her native Montréal and decided to "do what I love for the next three years," she says - major in art. With the help of her advisor, fine arts prof Gregg Blasdel, she learned how to transfer her mother's photos to canvas.
Blown up to 31-by-47.5 inches, the grainy, textured black-and-white images are "haunting," as Kogan says. Two show her standing in a bathroom between a scale and a toilet decorated with a Hello Kitty figurine, her head outside the frame. Her bones are frighteningly prominent, and there are loose folds of skin on her buttocks and thighs. "To me that speaks of how blind you are" with anorexia, Kogan says. "How did that not register, that I had no ass? You can see my coccyx. It's amazing, the things that you ignore, the physical red flags."
Her installation also includes sculptures that constitute further evidence of an eating disorder - hence the legalistic title, "Exhibit A." A female mannequin torso is covered with bits of paper scribbled with calorie counts. A reproduced section of shower wall bears mats of discarded hair.
But the most volatile piece of evidence - one that may not last much past the exhibit's opening - is 150 pounds of animal fat. It embodies the weight Kogan lost in her journey from "all" to "nothing."
Kogan says she wants to show people "how it felt to be fat. I want them to be overwhelmed." Obtaining the material for the piece was harder than conceptualizing it. After some futile phone calls to slaughterhouses, Kogan tried Costco, where she was told, "No problem! We can do it in a weekend!" she says, laughing.
But Kogan is dead serious when she talks about the impact she wants the exhibit to have on others. Besides dispelling some of the secrecy inherent in the disease, she hopes the images will show that anorexia is quite different from "trying to get down to a size 8 . . . It's a disease."
Oddly, weighing 240 pounds and 90 made her feel similar: "calm, in control," Kogan says. She believes the all-or-nothing mentality that fosters eating disorders can be healed, in the end, only by faith and trust: "Listen to your body."
"Exhibit A: All or Nothing" opens Wednesday, February 21, with a reception from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at McCarthy Arts Center, St. Michael's College, Colchester. The exhibit runs through February 27.