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Features/Perth Festival/Visual Art

Incubating a challenge

14 February 2020

Miranda Johnson finds in the Perth Festival exhibition, Bricolage, a challenge to the notion of what it means to be human.

Review: Nathan Thompson, Guy Ben-Ary, Sebastian Diecke, Josephine Wilson, Fremantle Arts Centre and SymbioticA Art, Bricolage ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Bricolage, a collaboration between artists Nathan Thompson, Guy Ben-Ary and scientist Sebastian Diecke, explores the nature of cells, in particular their ability to independently form kinetic sculptural forms while housed in an incubator.

A bricolage is an assemblage of diverse things that are seemingly unrelated. This exhibition sits within the sphere of bioart, in which research in the biological sciences takes new creative and material forms. Research and creative practice come together to explore significant and complex questions about what it means to be human.

A custom-made incubator in one of the exhibition’s two galleries contains stem cells originating from a drop of blood. Through cutting-edge stem-cell reprogramming technology, they transform inside the incubator, becoming human heart muscle cells that twitch and beat.

In the first gallery the viewer enters, there is a display of text, written in response to the work by award-winning Perth author Josephine Wilson. It expands across the gallery in the form of an experimental and layered contemplation of meaning, scale, the shape and sound of language, and the limits and borders of our bodies, porous and loosely defined as they are.

Wilson’s text provides an entry point and important context for the work, which is in the second gallery space the viewer enters. It’s an arresting sight as the incubator elegantly curves above head height.

Stools are placed beneath each viewing section, offering places to sit and look at the process of transformation. Viewers have to crane their necks to look up into the circles of light that surround each cellular display – a power play aimed to create discomfort for the viewers. It also undermines humans’ assumed hierarchy that makes them think they are superior to other living creatures. Sitting on a low plastic stool below the apparatus and gazing up does feel quite diminishing, as though your eyes and body aren’t quite up to the task of really grasping the biological processes occurring literally over your head, as you crane, twist and squint to witness what is unfolding.

The materials used in the work are all heavily loaded with historical and symbolic meaning: clay, blood, silk, and heart muscle. I found them significant in that they imply a sense of relationship with each other, and the way each can be transformed: clay’s shift in form and substance through firing, silkworms producing a substance used to make luxury and quality fabric.

A display of text by Perth writer Josephine Wilson, written in response to the project. Photo: Pixel Poetry

The significance of heart and blood are further explored in Wilson’s text, which imagines the inside of the body at the same time as it excavates the nature of language and the materiality of text itself. Through Wilson’s text, we see a new position on the presentation and understanding of biology, scientific research, and matter, and the ways it can resonate through our lives and experiences.

At some bioart exhibitions, I find it a little difficult to grasp the complexities of the research while also trying to understand the intertwining of research with an artistic practice. Wilson’s text added a fresh element into the exhibition, with ruminations on the ways scientific practice inhabits and changes our own understanding of our bodies and our cells, as well as the relationship between physical labour, automation, and human delusions of control and manipulations of life.

I felt that my understanding of the significance of the Bricolage incubator project – and bioart more generally – had been expanded and enriched through the combination of Wilson’s text, elegantly displayed alongside the art-object/incubator, within which new forms of life bubbled away

The Perth Festival exhibition, Bricolage, continues at Fremantle Arts Centre until 22 March 2020.

Pictured top: Viewers have to crane their necks to see what’s happening in the incubators at ‘Bricolage’. Photo: Pixel Poetry

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Author —
Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a curator and writer who has worked for various contemporary arts institutions, co-founded Cool Change Contemporary and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories. Miranda’s favourite aspect of the playground is getting the chance to meet as many dogs as possible.

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