Corpus Extremus (Life +)by Emily Warner
Exit Art February 28 – April 18, 2009
The body’s evocative layers of skin, desire, and pain have long been a rich departure point for art-making. We take many of the body’s conditions as givens: its materiality, its mortality, its role as both substratum and surface to the human soul.
The works in Exit Art’s Corpus Extremus (LIFE +) prod at these givens. The projects here—many realized in conjunction with research labs, art-science organizations, or medical doctors—create entities that are ambiguously visceral: teeming tissue cultures, lab animals, synthetic appendages.
The body itself has not disappeared; it lurks almost obsessively throughout the exhibition. But it’s a body excerpted from its context. BioKino’s “Living Screen” projects so-called “Nano-Movies” onto screens of human cell tissue that viewers peer at through a microscope. The mad scientist/sideshow elements of the installation make an interesting note on the exhibitionism of science and cinema. Yet there’s still a big conceptual leap between the skin you see through that microscope and the skin you identify on your own (or other people’s) bodies. An installation by ULTRAFUTURO dwells on this gap between modern science and sensory perception. A gloved finger in a gilded “sacral cabinet” lets you touch a colony of E. coli; directly above is a cartoonish rendering of Thomas’ finger probing the wound of Christ. If, in scientific discourse, the body is unrecognizable and touch no longer a viable form of proof, how do we go about knowing the world?
The artwork evokes not the inhabited or interior body but rather something externalized: a corpus, a specimen, something under review. This is not to say that the work is shortsighted. But it does mean that, even when the themes are broad, the aesthetic register can be very narrow. It is a cooled sort of body under consideration here, mediated through a surgical or scientific lens. Our pleasures and aversions tend to be likewise removed: moral quandaries, queasiness at the sight of blood, scopic fascination with tiny throbbing cells. These projects get us to think, but they don’t always get us too much further.
Compounding the problem is a tendency toward wordiness. An extended narration in a video, for example, will speak in circles about the heady implications of the work, to the point where the event itself—the process being documented—is lost in the fray. The at-times poor installation doesn’t help: audio tracks compete with one another and, worse, diffuse light compromises projected images. This is a serious loss in an exhibition where the aesthetic import often lies in the events and projects themselves.
There are standouts. The display of transgenic organisms by the Center for Post Natural History is excellently designed and an intelligent take on the strategies of presentation in natural history museums and science education. “Kefir Grains Are Going Onto the Flight,” a film by Yuri Leiderman and Andrei Silvestrov, features small blobs of milky kefir grains being poked, analyzed, anthropomorphized, and finally released into zero gravity. They are cosmonauts in training, yeasty growing specimens exhibiting personal genetic fitness.
The best work tackles not just biological material but the question of making—the relationship between artist and object. Paul Vanouse’s “Latent Figure Protocol,” images of which are displayed in the show, is a tool that generates figures in a gel base by inserting particular enzymes into columns containing DNA samples. After submitting the gel to an electric field, an image emerges—here, a rendering of a copyright logo. Vanouse’s figures are, like the traits in the DNA matter, latent in the system he’s designed.
“Silent Barrage,” a six-year research collaboration between a team of artists led by Guy Ben-Ary and Philip Gamblen and the lab of Dr. Steve Potter at Georgia Institute of Technology, becomes even more independent of its author. Several ceiling-high columns with vertically-moving robot parts interface with an off-site collection of rat neurons in the Georgia lab. The movement of gallery visitors below the columns is captured, converted into electrical impulses, and sent via the Internet to the neurons; the cells respond and, in turn, send signals to the robots in the gallery, which move loudly and variously up and down their poles. As with Vanouse’s work, the makers here are more programmers than manufacturers: the exact neuronal firings, crowd patterns, and robotic reactions are essentially unpredictable. “Silent Barrage” is the Galatea, the Frankenstein, of art and science, thrillingly but eerily autonomous.
For all its shortcomings, the exhibition gives a good sense of the emerging field of biotechnology art—both where its practitioners have compellingly succeeded, and where the work is thematically interesting but still artistically immature. We have, as Jennifer Willet states in her video piece, “already crossed the threshold” toward the engineered human being. It is up to artists like these to locate and draw out this new body—displaced, designed, and abstracted as it may be.
Emily Warner is a New York-based critic and writer, and former Editorial Intern at NYFA Current.