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cellular intrigue

kirsty darlaston: biotech arts revisted, experimental art foundation

Kirsty Darlaston is a PhD student at the University of South Australia, investigating communication models in art.


Niki Sperou, Man a Plant, giclee print (installation detail) Flinders Medical Centre, glass, plant, tissue culture, gel nutrient medium, drawing (2007) Niki Sperou, Man a Plant, giclee print (installation detail) Flinders Medical Centre, glass, plant, tissue culture, gel nutrient medium, drawing (2007)
IN HIS CATALOGUE ESSAY FOR BIOTECH ART REVISITED, MELENTIE PANDALOVSKI ASKS IF THE ASSIMILATION OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY HAS BECOME PART OF THE MENTAL EXPERIENCES OF THE GENERAL PUBLIC. THE DISTRIBUTION OF EXPLANATORY NOTES IN THE EXHIBITION SUGGESTS THAT THIS NEW FORM, BIOTECH ART, CANNOT YET BE UNDERSTOOD WITHOUT ASSISTANCE. THE ARTWORKS IN THE EXHIBITION ARE QUESTIONING: SIFTING THROUGH BODILY INTERACTIONS AT THE MICROSCOPIC LEVEL. ONLY ONE OF THE EIGHT WORKS (FOAM BY MAJA KUZMANOVIC AND NIK GAFFNEY) DOES NOT ENGAGE IN THE DISCOURSE ABOUT MINUTE CELLULAR ACTIVITY.

In NoArk I and II, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of the Tissue Culture and Art Project explore the taxonomical crisis that arises for life forms created through biotechnology. The work consists of two glass cases lit in dark red and blue. The first contains a boat/bag of mixed cells, the apparatus continuously rocking to keep them alive. The second contains, in order, taxidermied pig, rabbit, rat, mouse, crow, finch, fish, crustacean, mollusc, leech and a two-headed bird. These function as a Noah’s Ark-like collection of an evolutionary food chain, apart from the aberration of the two-headed bird, which acts as a kind of full stop. The juxtaposition of the objects in the two cases suggests that the suspended mass of cells in the first is a kind of scientifically created primordial soup that cannot be differentiated and thus classified.

The notion of the undifferentiated is also found in Niki Sperou’s Man a Plant. Sperou continues her interest in chimera in this work with an exploration of a 1747 text, Man, a Machine, which stresses the similarities between humans and plants. Plants have the ability to rejuvenate themselves and humans are rapidly gaining this ability through research into the potential for stem cells to repair damaged human tissue. Sperou presents five Petri dishes each containing an anatomical drawing that has its plant-like aspects highlighted with growths of grape cells and nutrient gel medium. Each dish has condensation spots, which partially obscure our view of the contents, attesting to the blurring of life at the cellular level.

Andre Brodyk’s installation, Proto-animate19, also deploys the science of the Petri dish. The biohazard sign at the entrance to the installation highlights the artist’s use of e-coli in growing ‘junk’ or non-coding DNA. Interacting with this installation without consulting the accompanying notes can induce discomfort, even fear. The room is peppered with biohazard containers. Children’s chairs, clustered in the centre of the room, each contain a Petri dish growing a face. At first glance this is quite horrifying, lending a sinister aspect to the room. What has happened here? This reaction belies the subtlety of Brodyk’s work. The portraits of ‘John Does’ are grown from DNA not active in biological production, specifically the proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. These comprise a complex meditation on identity and the nature of bodies in this biotech era.

Bio Kino explore the exotic/erotics of the body on scientific display, by referencing early scientific film, particularly the work of Dr Eugene L Doyen, who toured his 1902 film of the surgical separation of conjoined twins in side-shows as a curiosity and an “educational tool.” Bio Kino have miniaturised digital film to 500 microns, about half a millimetre, and projected them onto living cells. This living screen reacts and deteriorates, distorting the images. The resulting Striptease of the Siamese is a strangely erotic film of conjoined twins revelling in their dance together. The process by which the work has been made is just as disturbing and fascinating as the subject matter.

Changing Fates_matrilineal is constructed by an equally fascinating process. Trish Adams cultured adult stem cells from her own blood and used a chemical formula to change them into cardiac cells. The cardiac cells then clustered and began to beat. The DVD of this work contains images of these cells intertwined with the writing and photographs of the artist’s grandmother, accompanied by a sound track of breathing, soft whistling and a heart beating. In the explanatory notes the artist discusses the intertwining of the emotional and the biological, and the ephemeral nature of life. Equally the work suggests cellular sentience and it is hard not to attribute some kind of feeling to the heart cells beating together and a kind of sadness for their limited lives.

On entering Nanoessence, a collaboration between Paul Thomas and Kevin Raxworthy, you are instructed to breathe onto the model of a skin cell which is then projected onto a wall. The minute changes that the breath produces register on an airy landscape. The sign asking the viewer to interface with the work concludes with “Do not touch”, immediately bringing to mind questions of what touch is, body boundaries and how much of the body spreads into the atmosphere in the act of breathing. The world is, after all, littered with dead skin cells. The artists question the ocular-centric world of scientific research through seeking to collect data through touch, involving a fuzzy logic of shifting boundaries and not always containable movement.

Micro ‘be’ Fermented Fashion by Gary Cass and Donna Franklin and BioHome: The Chromosome Knitting Project by Catherine Fargher are perhaps the least subtle and most overtly confronting works of the exhibition. Cass and Franklin developed living garments using the cotton-like cells that are a by-product of the fermentation of wine to vinegar. The resulting clothes are dark red, wet and clotted looking. They function as a kind of bloody second skin on the bodies of the models. One photograph shows gruesome drips seeping down the back of the model. Playing with the world of fashion and the cult of youth this work introduces clothing that will age with you. As the accompanying text proclaims, a future which includes the monstrous will be found attractive by some, and not by others.

The soothing advertising-styled voice of the DVD of BioHomes: The Chromosome Knitting Project (Catherine Fargher, Terumi Narushima) offers a welcome that dominates the entire gallery. Its utopian, sci-fi tones, promising a brave new world, at first distract from the more complex, intricate works in the exhibition. The installation focuses on intensifying viewer discomfort about biotech products in the home. Unease is amplified by uncertainty; signs suggest viewer interaction: What am I touching? Breathing? As with Brodyk’s installation, Proto-animate19, the shock value of this installation obscures some of its subtleties. But curator Melentie Pandalovski highlights the importance of a visceral response to biotech arts and the physical unease triggered by BioHomes is testament to this.

Andre Brodyk writes of space being activated by different viewers as they enter into it, temporarily combining and recombining with other spatial elements. This Deleuzian notion is active in Biotech Arts Revisited as viewers become increasingly aware of their bodies, internally and externally. The visceral discomfort and fascination produced by the exhibition’s focus on the microscopic and the cellular is evidence of the continual revisions inherent in our relationship with our own and others’ bodies, as borders shift with each new technological and scientific development. The subtler aesthetic experiences of the works in Biotech Art Revisited suggests that the experience does not always have to be ugly.


Biotech Art Revisited, curator Melentie Pandalovski, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, April 9-May 2, www.eaf.asn.au/2009/biotech09.html

Kirsty Darlaston is a PhD student at the University of South Australia, investigating communication models in art.

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 34

© Kirsty Darlaston; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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