By Anthea Lacchia
Visceral, the Science Gallery’s current exhibition, is one of the latest attempts to merge art with science, mostly in the form of perplexing and slightly disturbing installations. The exhibition, running from January 28th to February 25th, is centered around the concept of creating artwork from living tissue. It presents a selection of works developed at SymbioticA, a leading art-science lab based in Perth, Australia. Don’t expect to understand any of the exhibits without the help of a brochure or a short explanation from one of the many volunteers.
Having said that, even these aids may not be enough to shed light on the unusual exhibits. Take the “Host” project, for example. Here, live crickets are placed in between two large video screens: one shows a scientist giving a lecture on the sex life of insects, the other an oscilloscope recording the electrical activity in the aural nerve centre of the crickets. Why? Good question. As pointed out by curators Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, the ambiguous nature of the installations is intentional and facilitates a debate about the consequences of biotechnological advances. Several of the displays lead the visitor to question the fine line between life and death. For example, in “The Vision Splendid” installation, living tissue taken from an African-American female in 1969 grows within a glass bioreactor, forming a living relic. Is she alive?
Similarly, “Semi-Living Worry Dolls” are a series of tissue-engineered sculptures, hand crafted out of degradable polymers and surgical sutures and seeded with living cells. Of course, the use of living material in art is controversial and some people may be offended by these pieces of living art. However, the topic of human intervention with life processes is likely to become more important as scientific exploration progresses. With this in mind, a panel discussion on the combination of art, science and ethics will take place on February 9th in the Science Gallery. Visceral will almost certainly leave the visitor with a sense of unease, and in some cases, queasiness. Perhaps the delicious coffee and pastries of the Science Gallery café can wait until after the visit.
Sooner or later, the question of whether there really is a point to putting 200 live crickets in jars and exposing them to flashing lights and noise, will probably arise. What about the preservation of calves’ hide, bone fragments and heart tissue in a bioreactor?
It’s all about reconsidering our perceptions of the world around us, or so the artists say. A documentary screening about SymbioticA works took place in the gallery on February 2nd, a date also marking the third anniversary of the Science Gallery. It featured works such as “The Harlequin’s Coat” by Orlan and “Producing Immolation” by Critical Art Ensemble: the first combines the work of French philosopher Michelle Serres with graphic plastic surgery footage and the second uses experiments on tissues to investigate the different levels of damage illegal weapons have on civilians. Food for thought? Yes. Disturbing? Definitely. Despite the concerns that Visceral raises about our relationship with emerging technologies, the human body and our relationship to living creatures, or perhaps because of these very concerns, it is well worth a visit. Just be warned: in the words of Oron Catts, it is “a bit visceral”.