Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Between Embodiment and Identity at Inigo Rooms, Somerset House

Alex Michon fights her fear of all things scientific to be dazzled and thought provoked by a sense of magical metaphysical melodrama

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee, 

John Donne 1

The blurb for this exhibition refers to how the development over the last twenty years in biomedical sciences have given rise to sophisticated new visualisation techniques into living cells and what lies beyond the surface of bodies and tissues. The works on show, by artists Susan Aldworth, Andrew Carnie and Karen Ingham are presented as a response and exploration of these ‘emerging and enriched images of the Self. ‘ 2

Close your eyes ... close them tight. Now what do you see? Swirling chiaroscuro shadows, maybe swirling squiggly lines or are they your own eyelashes or just an afterimage? What is it you are looking at? Is it the mind looking at the eye or the other way round? Practicing this inward looking the day after the exhibition I was reminded of the phrase seeing in my minds eye which forms part of the stream of consciousness narration for her film Out of Body by Susan Aldworth. The seeing on show here relates to an internal mapping, a journey of discovery into the sinews and tissues of the physical body and a questioning of what these hallucinatory swirls, blips, blobs and scans might reveal.

How can our 'natural' bodies be re-imagined – and relived in ways that transform the relations of same and different, self and other, inner and outer, recognition and misrecognition into guiding maps for inappropriate/d others? And inescapably, these re-figurings must acknowledge the permanent condition of our fragility, mortality and finitude. 3

Karen Ingham, Piece of Mind

So what do these artists do with these things that were previously invisible? And how do I, who always found the science lab at school boring and scary, just managed to scrape through with a pass in biology and have never watched an episode of CSI find a way into this new forensic molecular world?

Moving around the exhibition I soon ditched the idea that I needed to have any actual scientific knowledge. The artists here have taken unexpected, surprising and sometimes playful routes with their source materials and as I entered into their Cabinet of Curiosities, I was struck by a sense of theatricality, and constantly reminded of the early cinema of the Lumière brothers, perhaps not such a strange analogy as they too were at the forefront of new visual technological discoveries.

Enjoy the ride, the medicine show 4

Karen Ingham, Vanitas Seed-Head

As a sometime costume maker I was drawn to Karen Ingham’s Piece of Mind prints where images of brain cells have been transposed onto carnivalesque masks reminiscent of those worn at Venetian masquerade balls. Looking at the prints, I found myself unconsciously cutting them out as you would a craft kit and imagining how I would assemble them.

Ingham likes to subvert the way objects are collected, archived and displayed in science museums and these playful and decorative prints certainly belie the seriousness of their origins. 

Elsewhere Ingham shows her film installation Vanitas Seed-Head which incorporates an x-ray of her son’s head following an injury and uses computer morphing technology to superimpose images of mother, father and son against a blue background. This work references both Dutch Vanitas paintings and contemporary research into stem cell technology. Not knowing anything about stem cells I was drawn more to the visual filmic experience. For me, this very slow, still film had a mesmerising contemplative effect. All the participants eyes are closed which gives them the aura of death masks. They remind me too of photographs of the incorruptibles, those dead Catholic saints whose bodies when exhumed remain apparently untouched by the ravages of decay. 5

As each face fades and another appears in an ongoing cycle, like ghostly apparitions in some modern day Madame Blavatsky side show, various cinematic references came to mind. The faces enclosed in a misty blue dome, suggest a snow globe a important leitmotif in the film Citizen Kane which has been said to represent Kane’s childhood.

Kenneth Anger, Rabbit's Moon (1972)

It is interesting in this art/science context that the first snow globe created at the end of the 19th century was invented by Erwin Perzy, a producer of surgical instruments, who made his Schneekugel (snow globe) originally as an extra bright light source for use as a surgical lamp.

For me, aesthetically this piece, recalled both Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon and a beautiful 1972 short film by Kenneth Anger called Rabbit's Moon, which employs a similar blue colouring and which itself undoubtedly references Méliès.

Tell me how to find you and I will tell you who you are 6

Continuing with my filmic interpretations, as I walked into Andrew Carnie’s slide dissolve installation Seized: Out of this World I felt as if I had entered into a mise-en-scene petrified forest as I arrived just at the point where spectral images of white neurons (which look exactly like branches) were being projected onto a series of huge white gauze screens which billowed softly as I walked through them. Other projections involved multiples of a floating body layered one over the next emerging and disappearing like some ghostly cadaverous Pina Bauch ballet sequence.

Andrew Carnie
image from
Seized: Out of This World slide dissolve

The darkened room, the wafting gauze screens and the click-click of the slide projectors playing out their multiples of squiggly lines and bodies all worked to create a phantasmagorical viewing experience. It is not so much that I felt I was inside someone’s head but that I was inside a make believe snowy (film) landscape.

The fact that these are relatively low tech slide projections made me think of magic lanterns and zoetropes. Mentioning this to Carnie, I am pleased to learn that he approves of my analogy. To my list of pre-celluloid machinery he adds zoopraxiscopes created by photographic pioneer Eadweard James Muybridge in 1879 and considered to be the first movie projectors. I also learn that Seized: Out of this World portrays the liminal space of temporal lobe epilepsy and that the piece subtly portrays the shifting sense of body and space experienced by patients during their fits.

Insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world 7

I am not embarrassed that I did not realise this, ok so maybe I did not read all the blurb properly but not knowing the scientific root of the work does not necessarily detract from my viewing of it. What is more interesting is my subsequent discussion with Carnie about how some people with epilepsy when offered tablets to control their condition decline them as do some schizophrenics and manic depressives as they feel that their condition is an integral part of their personality. I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of Freudian psychoanalysis. In Capitalism and Schizophrenia they rail against Freud’s Oedipal complex which they claim endorses a police state, preferring instead to see the schizophrenic as a revolutionary who resists all forms of oppressive power. 8

A series of marvelous shapes formed at random in the kaleidoscope of desire 9

Susan Aldworth, image from Going Native

There is something of the archetypal Jungian trickster in the work of Susan Aldworth. This archetype is well know for bending and breaking rules, playing games and tricks which are often funny even when considered sacred or performing important cultural tasks. Far from being a malign figure, the trickster’s role is also seen as raising awareness of serious issues in a playful way. Aldworth who famously suffered a brain embolism which nearly killed her subsequently began to use the images of her brain scans as her subject matter and continues to weave together personal, medical and scientific narratives in her experimental print and film works. Aldworth is also artist iin residence at the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University where she has been working on a project exploring schizophrenia. Surrounded by all this heavy stuff and considering her own medical history, Aldworth however displays a resolute artistic determination to play, adding touches of humour and glamour to leaven the gravitas of her material. Thus in her film Going Native she introduces sequences of tap-dancing inside a human brain and a Busby Berkleye-sque kaleidoscopic arrangement of dancers in gorgeous maroon and gold dresses. 'I love film' she tells me, 'You can go anywhere you want within it.' Or to quote Angela Carter it is 'the entire Platonic shadow show, an illusion that could fill my emptiness with marvelous, imaginary things as long as, the movie lasted, and then all would all vanish.'10

In her film Out of Body, Aldworth recalls the brain procedure she underwent where she seemed to float to the ceiling, simultaneously able to watch the doctors working on her 'I was completely at peace' the film commentary intones 'I realised I was without pain … I was hearing with an echo ... and I felt as if I was in a tunnel.' If this film is in part a re-telling of a near death experience, then the dancing girls, and the inclusion of personal Super 8 film clips with its girls in white dresses, seaside trips and family photos, real people and their interactions stand in as an insistence of life. Desire, fun and memory, are introduced as a counterbalance to the internal cell structures of which they are formed. It is as if Aldworth is asking where is the reality of existence located?

Susan Aldworth, Reassembling the Self 3

There is much of the Victorian Gothic in Aldworth’s Reassembling the Self series of lithographs, but as always there is also a subtle hint of irony. 'These are my transitions' she says. Body parts have been reassembled to suggest new forms. One is obviously feminine with two large ears, suggesting hips or a 19th century bustle, while another more aggressive assemblage suggests a male, complete with heart (liver) codpiece! The lithographs with their strong Victoriana aesthetic nevertheless suggest very contemporary issues relating to medical interventions, cyborgs, organ donation and lots of pretty scary medical stuff – which who knows may also be beneficial and life enhancing. But that’s one for the scientists.

That dialectical dance around disciplines, known as art and science has a long history from Leonardo Da Vinci’s early investigations into anatomy, all the way through to Damian Hirst’s picked sheep and pill cabinets. It is a tricky two-step around the cultural dance floor. Either it is too science heavy and too art lite or vice versa. In Between Embodiment and Identity I think they have nearly got the balance just right.

What I personally found interesting in this show was how these very contemporary scientific themes, in the hands of these artists were aesthetically re-configured to suggest magical, glittering crystalline spaces, a Victoriana metaphysical melodrama which stayed with me days after the event and rattled and dusted off a few of my little grey cells too.

Alex Michon

Between Embodiment and Identity
Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, East Wing, Kings College, London
19 April – 30 June 2012

1. John Donne, Song.
2. Dr Richard Wingate from catalogue notes.
3. Donna J Harroway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women, 1991
4. Twenty Years by Placebo: There are twenty years to go / the best of all I hope / Enjoy the ride, the medicine show. / And thems the breaks for we designer fakes. / We need to concentrate on more then meets the eye
5. Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media into the Twenty-First Century, 2006

6. Gaston Bachelard, The New Scientific Spirit,from The Illusion of Life, Edited by Alan Cholodenko, 1991
7. R D Laing, The Divided Self, 1960
8. Jonah Peretti, Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution. Deleuze and Guattari see the schizophrenic as capitalism's exterminating angel. For them the schizo is a radical, revolutionary, nomadic wanderer who resists all forms of oppressive power. They believe that radical political movements should ‘learn from the psychotic how to shake off the Oedipal yoke and the effects of power, in order to initiate a radical politics of desire freed from all beliefs.’ Schizophrenic sensibilities can replace ideological and dogmatic political goals with a radical form of productive desire
9. Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, 1972
10. Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve, 1982