In Chris Henschke’s Song of the Phenomena, a bowl of decaying fruit is the focus of a retired linear particle accelerator. As the viewers look at the fruit, so does this massive machine. A bowl of decaying fruit is the emblem of still-life painting, Natur Morte or Vanitas. In still-life painting, the subject is arrested in the moment of death – a reminder of mortality and the transient nature of the physical world. Where the painted still-life is essentially static, the decay forever caught in the image, in this work the decay is an ongoing, noisy chaotic process. As Henschke explains, “the LINAC [linear accelerator] is activated by natural radiation from the atomic decay of potassium in the organic material.” This activation takes the form of uneasy sound and noise. The accelerator is huge. A hulking beast of a machine with oversized copper coils exuding like metallised entrails. The sense of mass is palpable, as though we can feel its gravitational pull. And yet this machine is seemingly floating on a streamlined, glowing plinth, as though defying the physics of its scientific heritage. Henschke has made this machine into a massive analogue synthesiser – playing the subatomic orchestrations of rotting and putrefying vegetation.
This spectacular work is the first piece encountered on entering the exhibition ‘Morbis Artis,’ brilliantly curated by Sean Redmond and Darrin Verhagen. The title translates to “diseases of the art” and the premise is described as an exploration of “the radical conjunction between the biomolecular and the artistic, and the thin doorway between life and death housed within discourses of disease.” The themes of disease and the biomolecular are sometimes more and sometimes less literally interpreted across the various installations in this show.
At the more literal end, Drew Berry presents an animated rendering of biomolecular processes within the body of an organism. This video is compelling and fascinating. But it would also be at home as a sequence in a high-budget science documentary. Berry’s skill in producing this kind of work is without question. But one of the challenges in the sub-genre of art/science is the tendency to present artwork as illustrative of science. As James Elkins (and others) have pointed out, this makes of an awkward pairing of art and science. Fortunately, the other works in this show are less overtly illustrative, and Berry’s piece has enough visual appeal to justify its inclusion.
The human body remains central to most of the works in ‘Morbis Artis.’ 20Hz provide an interactive installation using lights, sounds and sensors to perhaps induce nausea or something like motion sickness – directly impacting the physical body of the viewer. The damaged human body is aestheticised in Alison Bennett’s Bruise, an interactive video work in which bruised human flesh can be manipulated and moved on a screen. The viewer seemingly touching and manipulating the damaged organ, just to see how it looks, reminiscent of the Iain M Banks’ bruise artist in his SF novel Use of Weapons.
A more allegorical or metaphorical thread is followed in Harry Nankin’s work Szygy. Astronomical images from glass plate negatives taken from observatories are exposed onto photographic paper along with the silhouettes of insects formed, according to the wall-text, with “camera-less photography.” Insects seem to be suggested as emblematic of disease, pestilence, or infection of an image, but the works are poetic and quite beautiful. Nankin’s photographic works combine elements of scale, time, the human and the non-human in a highly effective way. The result is an emphasis on connection rather than threat or disruption.
Joshua Redmond and Sean Redmond’s video work Invasion of the Ants also draws analogies between the human and non-human world by juxtaposing images of refugees and ants. This, rather unfortunately, brings to mind the British columnist Katie Hopkins comparison of refugees to cockroaches in the UK newspaper The Sun in 2015. The premise of the show leads us to think that the insects are a symbol of pestilence, so I take this work in part as a critique of the mindset of commentators like Hopkins. Are refugees then a symptom of a societal disease symbolised by ants? Ants are amazing creatures capable of extraordinary feats so perhaps this is intended more as a consideration of humans as a super-organism.
In Andrea Rassell’s We Are Silently Surveilling one Another the viewer looks into the eyepieces of a microscope to see a video of humans milling on a street. The allusion here to humans as a pathogen is clear. Though there is a secondary reference, as most people are familiar with the image of milling bacteria though popular science programs, rather than directly viewing through a microscope. So the work deals equally with the idea of the human view of the microscopic world as it does with the Matrix-like “humans are like a virus” allegory.
Finally, the disease of the human is eradicated in The Zero Monument (or the Human Stain Remover) by Simon Reis and Cameron Bishop. This work is a large machine into which replica Malevich paintings are fed and which produces smooth green monochrome canvases. Although I did not have a chance to see this machine in operation, if indeed it does operate, it certainly looked like it would function. As the artists observe, Malevich’s experiments with the end of painting still bore the problematic traces of human production. The work eliminates these traces and proposes “green as the colour of the future.” Like the green-screen of video production, anything could be projected onto this surface. The monstrous machine occupies a corner of the gallery and, as the title suggests, is a modernist monument in itself. The clean lines of the constructed object hint at a world in which the unclean smudge of human contact has finally been eradicated.
‘Morbis Artis’ has some stunning high points and includes some spectacular work. The curatorial texts refer frequently to bio-art, which is usually understood to mean work made using organisms. This was not foregrounded in the work included, so perhaps the curators are suggesting a new interpretation. The works provide scope for a poetic and elliptical understanding of the interactions between humans and non-humans and the ideas of connection and contamination. But the most compelling works, such as Henschke’s Song of the Phenomena, operate on their own terms.
Nov. 17, 2016-Feb 18, 2017
RMIT Gallery, City campus
Header Image: Chris Henshke, Song of the Phenomena. Photo: Mark Ashkenazy
Mark Ashkanasy © RMIT Gallery.