Review: Jenn Garland, ‘Dark Skies Ahead’ ·
Paper Mountain ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·
“Dark Skies Ahead”, currently at Paper Mountain, is another exhibition presented as part of SymbioticA’s Unhallowed Arts festival. Curated by Jenn Garland, the exhibition responds to the 200-year anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by reflecting on the specificities of the climate at the time the book was written, using this as a starting point from which to examine the responses to our own current period of climate change. For Frankenstein was written in the “year without a summer” – a period of extreme weather triggered by a volcanic eruption in present-day Indonesia. In our present of impending climate doom and catastrophe, this exhibition is concerned with questioning, in Garland’s words, “what we can draw from Mary Shelley’s cautionary tale of unnatural life borne of unrestricted techno-science.”
The works in this exhibition by Angela Garrick, Kynan Tan and Devon Ward, Amy Perejuan-Capone, Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet, and Nathan John Thompson articulate or make concrete the abstract yet alarming fear of impending climate devastation, through creative use of data, emotions, bodies, text or the materiality of the weather itself. In doing so, they consider the ways in which science and technology contain the potential for either rapid progress or total destruction.
Many of the works deal directly with the weather, either to make visible the ways in which it impacts our daily life as a constant material force and an immaterial backdrop to our social interactions, emotions, and politics. Kynan Tan and Devon Ward’s Co•–st•–l W•–ve Tr•–nsl•–tor converts data from buoys in the Indian and Pacific Ocean near the islands of Manus and Nauru into waves of sound. Providing a memorable entry-point into the exhibition, the speakers stand guard near the doorway, sentries that invite – or challenge – the viewer to walk between them. The work makes unavoidable that which is rarely productively discussed in Australian political discourse – both the sea of data relating to our changing climate as well as the toxic political climate and literal environment experienced by refugees imprisoned by the Australian government on these tropical islands.
Other works deal with the humour and pathos of weather-related issues in our daily lives. Angela Garrick’s participatory work encourages us to have a “weather vent” whilst reflecting on the now-defunct ways in which communities have historically communicated in regional areas – an insight that is carried into Nathan John Thompson’s Your future self is watching you through your memories. Here, our changing relationship with technology is reiterated through quotes stretching back through history. Thompson’s work succinctly articulates the stuttering pace at which science and technology changes and mutates – sometimes ahead, sometimes behind our own comprehension of its capabilities. This suggestion of progress, real or imagined, is carried through into Kira O’Reilly and Jennifer Willet’s Untitled (Pig Tales and Showgirls Protocol) in which the sterility of lab environment is undermined, as the messy activity of biotechnological progress unfolds, questioning the ethicality of science that privileges human aims above all else.
Amy Perejuan-Capone’s works were produced on the other side of the globe in the world’s northernmost permanent settlement – Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Her delicate prints were left outside in the freezing temperatures as they dried, with the extreme weather leaving fascinating and intricate patterns that variously look like cracking ice, the surface of the moon, shells on the beach, an ultrasound of the body, and cell samples viewed through a microscope. In these works, the weather is re-centred as an active participant in the complex ecology that makes up our world; a participant that has agency and presence of its own beyond that of human activity.
The distinct and moving works in “Dark Skies Ahead” together interrogate the specificities of location and local environments whilst articulating the large, anonymous sea of data and information that announces the arrival of impending climate disaster.
Review: Moana Project Space, ‘It is a long time since this moment’ ·
Old Customs House, Fremantle ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·
“It is a long time since this moment”, presented by Moana Project Space, explores the possibilities of care and connection in our current age of late capitalism and eco-anxiety. This show forms part of the “Unhallowed Arts” program, a series of Perth-based events organised by SymbioticA to celebrate 200 years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published.
The Moana curatorial team (Jess Boyce, Grace Connors, Miranda Johnson and Matthew Siddall) have taken Shelley’s text as an expression of scepticism over Enlightenment ideals, specifically those surrounding the concept of progress and mankind’s control over nature. In a gesture to Moana’s roots as an artist-run initiative, the participating artists are all emerging and experimental practitioners – with the show’s title also referring to the period since the closure of Moana’s CBD-based gallery space last year. The works examine our interactions with non-human entities, the natural environment and each other; questioning and testing the constructed boundaries that separate us from our wider ecologies within the context of the Anthropocene.
In Marisa Georgiou’s Afternoon Fountain Routine (2016), a playful and calming video that runs for almost 20 minutes, the artist uses their body to disperse water from a hose onto a balcony full of potted plants. It is an intimate action set against a familiar domestic backdrop, inviting the viewer to act as a voyeur to Georgiou’s sensual bodily interactions with the greenery. The artist’s movements resemble a meditative act of personal self-care (rather than any kind of effective gardening technique), perhaps revealing the performative nature of the relationships we have with our pot plants.
In another sensual video, Columba Livia (2017), the artist Nadege Phillipe-Janon slowly inserts pigeon feathers into their mouth, one-by-one, thoroughly caressing each feather with tongue and lips. This video provoked a visceral reaction for me – it was hard not to cringe while watching the feathers penetrate such an intimate bodily boundary (not to mention the taste). Intended as a comment on the undeserved reputation of the pigeon as a disease-carrier, Phillipe-Janon’s work encourages us to reflect on the human tendency to categorise and moralise the natural world, as we designate some animals as “dirty” and others as “clean”. Archie Barry explores how these evaluative tendencies are extended to people in Shutter utter (2018), in which the artist’s blinking is enhanced to super-speed to critique the power of the gaze.
After applying sunscreen or coconut oil (your choice), visitors can put on a head torch to explore the vault containing Matt Aitken and Mei Swan Lim’s installation Aqua Familial (2018). The framed photographs, plant matter and other trinkets in the bunker (defined on the room sheet as “various personal possessions from artists’ living room”) are accompanied by a soundscape playing on a record player. This private, and very relatable, collection of artefacts provokes an instant sense of nostalgia, despite the artists and their families remaining strangers (to me). It’s as if the artists have shored their emotional landscapes through the creation of the work, producing a place they can retreat to in times of crisis. Outside in the gallery space, the works of Red Slyme Incubator identify this crisis as imminent and specifically environmental; their elaborate assemblages react against “greenwashing”, instead encouraging pathos and rage-based responses to climate change.
These distinct works cohere in a thoughtful exhibition that encourages contemplation of our place in the Anthropocene – how we can find hope, understanding and other strategies to survive when the future seems bleak.
Review: Tarsh Bates, “This Mess We’re In” ·
Old Customs House, Fremantle ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·
At the junction of science and experimental art, the works within “This Mess We’re In” explore big ideas – specifically, queer and intersectional feminist perspectives on the relationships between life and technology. The first curatorial project of Perth-based artist Tarsh Bates, this exhibition is presented as part of “Unhallowed Arts”, a program of events organised by SymbioticA to celebrate the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Bates has taken Shelley’s text as a starting point to navigate the implications of, and ethics surrounding, the impact of science upon our bodies and bodily experiences. The diverse works in this sprawling survey – which range from a hypertext novel to a family tree of yeast samples – span fields such as biotechnology, speculative design and queer theory in order to critique colonisation, the patriarchy and scientific paradigms all within the context of the Anthropocene.
Many of the works in this exhibition implicate the artist’s own bodies, often in invasive and confronting ways. In the video work Transplanted (2018), Karen Casey utilises her own medical scans, generated during the process of her recent liver transplant. This video work is at once deeply personal and strangely abstracted, as the clinical lens of medical imaging strips Casey’s body back to its component parts. Observing the artist purely as a physical specimen, the viewer must assume and reinsert the emotional trauma and suffering felt during such a dire crisis of health.
Elsewhere in the show, Hege Tapio’s slick trade fair display showcases a series of smartly packaged resin cubes containing “HumanFuel”. The accompanying brochure reveals this substance to be a biofuel distilled from the artist’s own body fat, which was obtained through liposuction. Using a cosmetic surgical procedure to harvest her own body, Tapio has produced a deeply disconcerting product which works to problematise the nature of fossil fuel alternatives. Nearby is Abhishek Hazra’s Let a Thousand Proteins Bloom (2011) in which the artist has extracted ammonium nitrate (used in both fertiliser and explosives) from human breast milk. Both Tapio and Hazra utilise chemistry to interrogate the politics of women’s bodies, challenging gendered ideas of utility, purity and labour, on an industrialised scale.
A significant proportion of the works in “This Mess We’re In” tackle this sort of heavy subject matter with a tone of irony and humour – such as Kathy High’s OKPoopid (2017) in which the artist, who has Crohn’s disease, uses speed-dating to search for “the perfect poop partner” for a faecal transplant.
Other works combine satire with a reconceptualising of ecological crisis – Mike Bianco’s The Bush Blaster (2017), a preposterously phallic strap-on purportedly designed to assist honeybees with pollinisation, skewers aggressively masculine conceptions of the natural environment. In The Molecular Queering Agency (2017), Mary Maggic encourages a radical rethinking of the ongoing pharmaceutical contamination of our environment. A kitsch, retro-futurist video implores us to embrace the “queer possibilities” of this toxicity, reframing the pollution as an opportunity for us to consider our bodies as “permeable, mutable, changeable and disobedient”. This video is paired with a set of oxygen masks attached to vials; artefacts from a live performance in which hormones are extracted from the urine of participants, who then inhale the hormones of previous users. It’s a clever, and entertaining, work of experimental art (but definitely not for everyone).
It’s well worth purchasing the exhibition catalogue to learn more about each artist and their practice, particularly as the elaborate, labour-intensive complexity of some of the works is not immediately apparent. The stippled illustrations of mutant creatures produced by Svenja Kratz seem relatively straight-forward, until you discover that the inks were created from “genetically engineered protein mutant pigments” produced through a process of mutagenesis. Nevertheless, other works are equally affecting in their simplicity – such as Kirsten Hudson’s abjectly huge sugar cubes, each weighing as much as the artist, or the meditative labour depicted in Katie West’s grinding stone video.
A significant amount of time is definitely required for visitors to adequately explore the depths of this dense exhibition. Confronting, beautiful, and often bizarre, the radical works of “This Mess We’re In” offer a lot to consider and will stay with you long after your visit.
Review: The Tissue Culture and Art Project review, “Biomess” ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·
Currently on show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia is “Biomess”, an exhibition that examines the possibilities that arise when combining the biological sciences with artistic practice. Collaborative duo Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr make up The Tissue Culture and Art Project, and have been researching bioart, at the intersections of art and science, since 1996. The pair also run SymbioticA Lab, based at the University of Western Australia, which hosts a continuous array of international and local artists, scientists and researchers.
Biomess brings to the fore the occasionally sticky ethical and theoretical implications to the developments in biological science that allow for the creation of new forms of life. The exhibition displays living and dead organisms from the Western Australian Museum’s collection, as well as a deconstructed bioreactor capable of making hybridoma cells, or the fusion of cells from multiple organisms. The artists seek to challenge viewers’ understandings of the fundamental categories of life, death and procreation; and to point out that common understandings of these categories are incredibly limited.
The exhibition consists of a series of slick black and glass cases, lit from below to illuminate the various creatures and objects inside. Animals as diverse as Byrne’s geckos, the mollusc nudibranch, bearded dragons, a taxidermy emu and a live axolotl are on display, variously displayed in water tanks, laid out and stuffed, or piled into buckets and tubs. Significant is that the didactic information is displayed some distance from the cases, leaving the viewer to wander and wonder, and ultimately arrive at their own conclusions about how each creature came to be displayed thus so. The information provided does contribute heavily to engaging with the exhibition’s premise but keeping this information separate from the display cases provides a certain level of distance. The didactic panels, once found, provide a multitude of information regarding the specific curiosities of each animal – Byrne’s geckos, for example, can clone themselves without need of a mate, nudibranchs are hermaphroditic, and axolotls are able to regenerate their body parts. It’s incredibly satisfying – and fascinating – to read about the diversity and quirkiness of life – which is, in all senses of the word, extremely queer.
Mirroring the cases on the other side of the gallery is the large deconstructed bioreactor, containing a jar of hybridoma cells, fused from two separate sources – an entirely human-constructed form of life that defies current forms of classification. This bioreactor gestures towards the possibilities of future scientific research, juxtaposed against the animals displayed in the cases, which are already and have always defied and challenged our understanding of the processes of life, death, gender and procreation, though we didn’t always know it. In this way, the exhibition, taken as a whole, questions the way we classify living matter, as well as the impact of human intervention on “natural” processes – is it natural for a beetle to want to mate with a man-made beer bottle to the point of near extinction of its species? Biomess suggests that the natural is, and always has been, open to interpretation; manipulated and muddled, as humans and non-humans alike respond to their environments, evolve and adapt.
However, circling the cases once again, I felt that in this lab (and gallery), this flourishing of life felt more clinical, the curious and the challenging stripped, stuffed and laid out. Of course, it’s meant to be clinical in a corporate sense, the cases deliberately designed to imitate the clean lines and fetishistic displays of luxury branding, except with a taxidermy parrot lying inside, rather than a Chanel handbag. I was aware that this was a comment on the corporate interests that have the power to sway scientific research and commodify life, but at the same time, by reproducing these formats with little intervention, its critique is somehow softened.
This feeling resonates when considering the presence of live animals in a gallery space. Of course, live animals are used in scientific research all the time, in many awful ways, and the signs prominently displayed at the entrance to the exhibition reassure visitors that the live animals shown here are monitored daily by specialist handlers, yet it’s worth asking whether that’s enough. Monitoring is different to thriving, and I felt decidedly uncomfortable as I watched the axolotl hiding behind the single rock in its otherwise bare tank. But at the same time, my lack of specialist knowledge leaves me unsure as to what kind of environment the axolotl would prefer – a feeling, I expect, that is shared by other visitors from non-scientific backgrounds. It’s clear from this exhibition that we have much to learn about the so-called natural world, and the ways in which scientific practices, corporate interests, and everyday existence are entangled.
A monstrous arts event is about to take place in Perth. Named “Unhallowed Arts”, it’s timed to celebrate the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and features exhibitions and events that explore that seminal text’s influence on contemporary life and culture.
While Frankenstein’s laboratory may be fiction, behind the monstrosity that is “Unhallowed Arts” is a real lab, SymbioticA. Curious, Nina Levy got in touch with Symbiotica’s director, Oron Catts, to find out more.
Nestled deep in the heart of the School of Human Sciences building at the University of Western Australia (UWA) is a laboratory with a difference. Make your way up to the second floor, past the fridges storing biological material, and you’ll find the home of SymbioticA, an artistic research laboratory in a biological sciences department. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms then you’re about to have your mind opened. Rather than viewing science and the arts as mutually exclusive disciplines, SymbioticA is predicated on the idea that the two are inextricably linked.
“We are interested in the concept of life and how our relationship to that concept is changing and shifting,” explains SymbioticA’s director, Oron Catts. “So it makes sense for us to park ourselves in the biological science department, where the most radical shifts in dealing with the idea of life, and life in general, are happening. Our research scope ranges from the molecular to the ecological but with a keen interest in contemporary biotechnological ways of engaging with life. What makes us really special is that we have our own research lab, a level two biological lab, specifically for artistic research.” For the non-scientists amongst us, according to Wikipedia, “level 2” refers to the level of precautions that need to be taken in order to ensure that dangerous biological agents remain contained within the lab.
In addition to enabling artists and researchers to engage in wet biology practices, SymbioticA also hosts residents, workshops, exhibitions and conferences. Based at UWA since 2000, SymbioticA was founded by Catts and Dr Ionat Zurr, now the academic co-ordinator. As Catts explains, from the beginning SymbioticA has been concerned with the idea that the rapidly developing field of biotechnology, which allows biological and genetic materials to be manipulated, needs the input of artists as well as scientists.
“The main reason SymbioticA got started was this interest in the idea that biology is becoming more and more of an engineering pursuit and [that] life [is becoming] the raw material for human wants and needs,” he elaborates. “We felt it was really important for artists to also start to use the living biological materials … if other professions are allowed to do it, it’s particularly important for artists to explore this area because we need to make sense of what it means to treat life in such a way.
“We try to be non-prescriptive … We’re not trying to tell [our residents and students] how to think about these issues, we’re trying to make them aware of those issues and trying to find different strategies to open up those questions to the wider community and get them involved in the awareness that something very, very strange is happening to life and that we shouldn’t leave those decisions about we’re doing [solely] to scientists, business people and engineers.”
As the name suggests, SymbioticA is founded on the idea that there is a symbiotic relationship between science and the arts – “the capital S stands for science and the capital A for arts,” says Catts – but he is anxious to emphasise that it’s not about outcomes or benefits for either field. He is wary of what he refers to as “the innovation paradigm.” He elaborates, “That’s the neoliberal idea that we always have to come up with gadgets and innovations to justify our existence. We try not to revert to that rhetoric because we believe that there’s way more important things to think about than just short-term profits… in most cases, they’re not even benefits.” Instead, he says, SymbioticA is engaged in a “critique of life science.”
That said, SymbioticA has been involved in some exciting scientific developments, continues Catts. “We have quite a few scientific applications that have come out of SymbioticA … because the nature of the questions we ask can generate new knowledge, just by engaging with queries that artists have around the materiality of living systems and what can be done to them. We are credited, for example, with being the first place that was growing meat in the lab, and growing leather. We did that very early in the game. We have an artist here, Guy Ben Ary, who is also one of the technicians and is doing a lot of work with neuroscience and stem cell research and he has worked very closely with scientists to develop new ways of doing things.
“But first and foremost, we focus on the idea that we are living in a time when life is going through major transformations and there is a need for a wide variety of approaches in dealing with [the questions that arise as a result]. We represent one approach, which is experiential … we train the artists in techniques, so that they’re not looking over the shoulder of scientists, they’re actually working in the lab, with the materials and they gain a very intimate understanding of the field which allows them to be much more informed about the possibilities. This is another issue we have at the moment – the meat is a prime example, it’s being hailed as something that might save the world, but we see it as a symptom of the ailments of the world, rather than solving the [world’s] problems.”
It’s unsurprising, then, to learn that in spite of keeping a relatively low profile at home, SymbioticA has an international reputation. That low profile at home is about to change, however. Throughout September and October SymbioticA will be revealing itself on a monstrous scale, with “Unhallowed Arts”, a collection of arts events at various venues in Perth and Fremantle. The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to comparisons that have been made between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature, and the SymbioticA artists working in their lab. Initially unwanted, the group has decided to embrace the comparison. It’s timely, as 2018 is the bicentenary of the publication of Shelley’s gothic novel.
The initial idea for “Unhallowed Arts” was to hold a conference, says Catts, but with overwhelming interest, it quickly developed into a much larger scale event, with exhibitions at the Art Gallery of WA, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Old Customs House (Fremantle), UWA’s Cullity Gallery and Paper Mountain, and a film program at the State Library, in addition to “Quite Frankly”, the conference being held at UWA.
One of these exhibitions is developed by Catts and Zurr as part of their Tissue Culture and Art Project. Intriguingly entitled “Biomess”, it is curated by the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s Curator of Contemporary Design and International Art, Robert Cook, and opens at AGWA, September 8. As the name suggests, the exhibition looks at what Catts describes as “the messiness of biology”.
“Biomess” started with Catts and Zurr approaching curators at the WA Museum. “We asked them if they have any specimens in their collection of organisms that defy a sense of self or body or reproduction,” says Catts. “We were starting to thinking about it around the time of the same-sex marriage plebiscite, when conservatives would use [arguments] like, it’s not natural to engage in particular sexual relationships. When you look at the way living biological systems deal with [sexual relationships], there is such a variety, so many organisms that change their gender in their lifetime, organisms that reproduce in different ways. One example, which unfortunately we don’t have in our show, is a bird that has two variants of the male, where one male looks like a female. The [female-looking male] gets the male-male to mount them. When they do so they transfer the sperm into the male-male and then that bird mounts the female. So the manly male is the vehicle for the feminised male to transfer its sperm into the female.”
While that example won’t be seen, there are plenty of fascinating specimens that will be part of the exhibition, says Catts. “An amazing example is that there’s a beetle where the male started to fall in love with a specific beer bottle, to such an extent that they lost interest in females and were only mounting the bottles. Biologists went to the brewery and asked them to change the design of the beer bottle because there was a risk that the beetle would go extinct from fetishizing the bottle.
“We have a marsupial that the males, when they reach sexual maturity, they stop everything and just procreate until they die of exhaustion.
“There are other organisms that are hermaphrodites, there’s fish that change their gender from female to male. There’s only one dominant male, so if that male disappears or dies, one of the females in the group becomes male.”
While that sounds fascinating enough, there’s another twist. “We’ve commissioned the designers who build the luxury display cases for David Jones to build display cases for the specimens. The idea is that when you enter the gallery you’re not sure if you’re in art museum, a natural history museum or a luxury shop,” elaborates Catts. “That will be contrasted with an incubator that we’re designing here. We’ll have living organisms there: snails, slugs…” he pauses to throw the question to taxidermist Teori Shannon, “What else will we have?”
“Stick insects, these pink sea cucumbers, some starfish… we’ve got these snails that can grow bigger than a tennis ball. They’re really nice,” replies Shannon.
“And then we’ll have lab-grown life,” continues Catts. “We are working with what’s called the hybridomas. As early as the late 1960s scientists found a way to fuse cells from different organisms to grow together and become one new organism … it’s a lifeform which can only exist within the confines of a lab, but defies any form of classification. You have human/mouse hybridomas, you have mouse/horse hybridomas, some of them have three different organisms.”
Listening to Catts talk I feel like I’ve slipped into some kind of futuristic sci-fi fantasy film set… except that I know that I am sitting in the Biological Sciences building at UWA. At the point where arts and science intersect it seems that anything is possible.
Catch Biomess at the Art Gallery of WA, September 8 – December 3. Find out more about that exhibition and the rest of the “Unhallowed Arts” program at https://unhallowedarts.org/
Pictured top: Disembodied Cuisine Installation, by the Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary), medium: mix, 2003. Photo: Axel Heise.