Science as Muse: Interpreting the Natural World
Ruth Beer, CHOP journal, Volume Thirty-Three, Issue One; Transformations, 2007
The exhibition The Animal That Therefore I Am featuring the work of Catherine Stewart and Gerri York took place in October 2007 at the Malaspina Gallery. As the title suggests, the work in the exhibition focuses on how humans and other bio-organisms are closely interrelated. Both artists are interested in interpreting scientific findings through their practices. Similar to scientists in the lab, these artists test ideas, theories and hypotheses transforming information into something else. The artwork in the exhibition is a reminder that art and science are parallel disciplines that are constantly evolving and acting together to interpret our experience of the world and expand our collective understanding of reality.
Gerri York’s artwork celebrates our interrelatedness with other organisms by visually interpreting molecular or microscopic forms and patterns. She also prompts us to reconsider our problematic relationship with the animal world, as in Is a Dolphin a Person?, a work inspired by American ethicist Mary Midegley’s essay that suggests we should become more aware of the genetic, physiological and even psychological similarities we share with these sentient beings. York’s interests in biomimicry and in Janine Benyus’ descriptions of how particular animal physical characteristics are adapted to benefit everyday life are presented in Will a Gecko Bond?. The exquisite blood-red visceral surface of this mixed-media work makes reference to new adhesives for medical bandages that were discovered by studying the skin of the gecko. Other artwork such as Phosphor Endure II, Jellyfish: A Glow in the Dark, and One Thousand Kisses Deep are linked to York’s fascination with bioluminescence, produced by green fluorescent protein in marine organisms –a discovery that has provided us with luminescent surfaces for purposes such as safety materials. York interprets these findings and encourages a heightened sensitivity to our interaction with the natural world.
Light and transparency are significant aspects of her work. They are integral to the process of production, expressed in the back-lit print presentation and explored with the use of LED lights. In York’s sculpture, One Thousand Kisses Deep, multiple pod-like forms glow with LED lights embedded inside translucent hand-made etched paper skins. The pods, like lanterns or balloon kelp seem to be tethered by electrical cords to keep them from floating into the space of the gallery. The artworks that are illuminated from within are imbued with an evocative glow and otherworldly presence intimating the notion that the irrational is present in our relationship with animals.
York works intuitively to create abstract, mediated forms and images that intriguingly suggest biological cell structures and micro-organisms. Her working process mirrors a kind of generative or evolutionary process found in nature. She uses repetition and reproduction for interpreting her ideas and as a formal strategy to construct her images. In Hedgehog York deftly manipulates colour, composition and pattern, combining abstraction and representation. Her strategy includes the use of the strict formalist grid, precisely repeated multiple images and saturated digital colour combined with realism of the photographically rendered detail of the animal fetus. In Jellyfish she creates a layered tension between the traditional and digital processes combining the digitally printed image on photo-rag paper (Hannemuele) with etching techniques. Although York’s work is based in printmaking traditions she embraces digital applications, along with processes such as lithography, monoprint and collage (chine colle) as well as unconventional materials such as Japanese nori which she collaged onto a digital photograph to best accomplish the lush effects of texture and colour in the work entitled Seaweed .
York’s work balances chance and intention, order and confusion and suggests things coming together and coming apart. Repetition of shapes and patterns are translated into compositions of dense clusters evoking an organic mass reminiscent of natural occurrences, reproduction, biological cells or a microscopic view of organic material in flux. Her intention is to create an intersection between art and science by proposing a more experiential sensory approach to understanding our relationship with animals and by expressing wonder and delight in complex and fascinating processes in nature.
While both Stewart and York have combined traditional print techniques with digital technology in developing and producing their work, their approaches are clearly very different. In her identifiable images, Stewart uses black and white to further conceptualize her subject matter. York’s biomorphic, abstracted compositions are more associative and use colour and bright light as strong aesthetic features. Both artists’ works reflect on the human connection to other organisms but in very different ways. By pairing disparate human and animal images Stewart distills uncanny similarities and poetic relationships between the human and the non-human inhabitants of this planet thereby highlighting our commonalities with the animal world. York, in contrast, deals more indirectly with our complicated relationship with other bio-organisms through her titles that focus on questions about the sentient nature of living things as well as beneficially applicable features of various bio-organisms. One of the unifying features of the exhibition was the use of contemporary presentation formats with both artists suspending their prints between layers of Plexiglas – York’s held out from the wall by plexi boxes and Stewart’s resting on ledges and leaning up against the walls of the gallery. The overall effect was light and pristine like one would imagine a scientific laboratory to be.
The common aspect that holds these two bodies of work together is that both artists drew upon their interest and fascination with scientific investigative processes. The artwork of both artists challenges us to ask questions about what we see and know. Considering science as muse, they reveal new interpretations of the natural world and remind us of the increasing importance of recognizing the interrelatedness of humans and other life forms on this planet.
(adapted and edited from the original journal publication)
Ruth Beer is a Vancouver- based artist and writer. She has exhibited sculpture, photography and video in national and international exhibitions. Her collaborative writing projects have been published in numerous journals. She is the recipient of several Canada Council Visual Art Grants and public art commissions. She is an Associate Professor and former Head of Visual Art at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. She is on the Board of Directors of Presentation House Gallery and for the past six years served as an artist representative on City of Vancouver Public Art Committee.
Not a chance in Hell: Considering the work of Paul Chan and, Jake and Dinos Chapman.
GerriYork; CHOP journal, Volume Thirty-Four, Issue Two: Conflict
Paul Chan and Jake and Dinos Chapman, within their current practice, unflinchingly assimilate a restructured, apocalyptic view of contemporary reality. But despite their visions of fabricated awfulness, the works function to destabilize these atrocities and defy a merciless world with, perhaps, a consideration for hope. The Chapman brothers state that “vertiginous” images of violence and death give us an opportunity to ask questions about and to ascribe value to what we have in life and to understand death(1) Alternatively, Chan’s current work places us, literally, in a physical experience to confront a lonely landscape of falling figures and the eerily beautiful passage of time. His work, along with his poster projects, raises the possibility of hope for the future through political action. This essay will explore the ideas inherent in the Chapman brothers’ and Chan’s work, while questioning the ways in which contemporary art modalities look towards the future through the archives of the past.
The Chapman Brothers make uncompromisingly challenging, often irreverent art about the human condition, imbuing their work with a skilful, essentially contemporary form that often forces us to confront their issues in a physical and visceral sense. Within the epic work Fucking Hell (2008) they examine prevailing politics, religion and morality. Its historical, religious and contemporary narratives reveal an intimate vision of universal disaster and the human capacity for evil. The work seems to ask questions about the enduring nature of human conflict and exactly how far we can go. What is clear is that it just keeps on going, ad infinitum, and the work’s brutal presentation is neither redemptive, nor idealistic or passive in its demands. Small-scale plastic models of figures, trees and buildings are set up in this installation within nine museum scaled vitrines organized in the shape of a swastika. The minute scale within the vitrines demands our close engagement with the subject matter, forcing us into an intimate confrontation with its vaster focus. The proficiency in the construction of their work, the finely crafted detail simply serves to amplify the horror of it all. Difficult imagery, and carnage not withstanding, they are, however, toys and in the Chapman’s words, we are given permission to laugh. 2
Witty chaps, perhaps, but shock and unease might be a more common reaction. Along with images of Hitler and the holocaust, the Fuhrer’s factory, sites of mourning such as the death camps, mass graves and Anne Frank in her attic, we are witness to tiny dioramas of both Hitler’s baptism and one of him painting a tranquil landscape, while, what is actually in front of him, are hundreds of mutilated victims. This extraordinary installation is also full of signifiers to visual language. For example, works such as, The Raft of the Medusa, artists such as M C Escher and Mantegna, as well as references to low and high culture that include Stephen Hawkins, the movie industry and a McDonald’s fast food outlet housed within an exotic temple, are but a few of the wide ranging references.
What can be gained from looking at Fucking Hell and where does this unsavoury foray into mega-violence take us? The Chapman’s presentation is many steps removed from reality; a virtual reality that is de-contextualized enough to be read as model makers’ heaven. The miniaturization de-humanizes the content and the toy soldiers possibly make war more palatable. In his catalogue essay for Fucking Hell, Rod Mengham writes,
The hygienizing of war through miniaturization is a cultural phenomenon that reflects an important aspect of the Chapman brothers’ decision to create a version of hell with thousands of mass-produced figurines…The generic figures discourage identification, encourage fantasies of torture and mutilation without feelings of guilt, since the scenario is plainly the product of make believe…(2)
Toy soldiers have historically been used in strategic war planning and are now hijacked by adult war game enthusiasts who account for seventy per cent of the market for plastic toy soldiers, products of the booming plastics industry in China.
Are the Chapman brothers setting themselves up as witnesses to a perpetuating chronicle? It is well known that Francesca Goya’s etching series, the Disasters of War (1810) has been of prolonged interest to the Chapman brothers and, as with Goya’s relationship to political conflict and war, they are observing and recording in producing these works, not necessarily analyzing them. There are specific references to Hitler and holocaust atrocities but we might, by association, also be asked to reflect on more recent conflicts in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Iraq and the Congo.
In the catalogue for the Chapman’s previous work Hell (2006), Mark Holborn recounts that the work… “is not in fact ocular. It is not about seeing at all.”(12) In outlining this nightmare for us, (the under-pinning psychological meaning, not the visual effect that privileges sight) the Chapman brothers’ work serves to underscore the distancing that exists between the conflict and our willingness to acknowledge any culpability and I would say that this is at work in Paul Chan’s piece too.) Holborn goes on to denounce a common attitude in contemporary Britain towards the current state of the world, saying that we live in…“an age of disbelief and shopping. Our suffering is not from starvation but obesity…Hell lurks on the High street.” (Holborn12) He is referring to an un-shockable generations brought up on fast food, obsessed by reality television and experiences mediated through celebrity culture. In an interview, Jake Chapman states that George “Bataille seeps into everything we do”3 and notes that it is almost superfluous to make transgressive art in a contemporary world appalled by nothing. The nastier their work gets, the more it seems to adjust to contemporary society’s desire to be terrorized. This falls in line with Bataille’s concept of seduction and repulsion. I want to look but please make it go away. (Baker 33) In a review of the Hayward Gallery’s 2006 exhibition “Undercover Surrealism,” an homage to Bataille, Ned Denny made the following comment.
“What distinguishes Bataille is not his perversity, but his recognition of the tough measures needed to cure a perverse situation. Shunned by mainstream surrealism for his attraction to all that is “soiled, senile, rank, sordid”, Bataille saw that we can no more be healthy without embracing darkness than a tree be loath to dirty its roots by placing them in the ground. In a world moving further away from the shadowy yet nourishing earth, this insight is more urgent than ever.” (Denny 24)
Perhaps this viewpoint applies to the Chapman brothers’ installation.
Paul Chan’s work hints at an equally dismal, war torn world. His practice is informed by a diverse range of interests, his catholic taste amply demonstrated in his website, http://www.nationalphilistine.com, and he is well regarded as a political activist. The work considers the anxiety of existence and in the case of his new series, “7 Lights” meditates on failure in society and our inability to learn from past mistakes. In creating spiritually immersive experiences, Chan’s work structures video as a sculptural practice so that his projections completed between 2005 and 2007, take video into a distinctive dimension. By projecting the images across the floor and into the corners of the gallery space, they unfold in unexpected ways to involve the viewer in a phenomenological experience. In this ambitious series of silent, digital video projections, Chan sees light and shadow in terms of religious invocation and asks us to consider the current state of faith and belief in the contemporary world. The flattened, shadow shaped images occurring within the suite might suggest the seven days of creation. The projections use slowly transforming light, from pale watery washes to full spectrum colours, darkening to pitch black over the fourteen minute, looping cycle. 1st Light intimates an edgy narrative of misfortune and doom. Dark, shadowy objects of consumer culture, cell phones, ipods, guns and so on, float in and out of the projection and appear to fall apart and rise upwards along with the frantic evacuation of birds. Meanwhile, a menacing wind blows, a tree bends in and around the scene, a telephone pole ascends like a modern, techno crucifix as figures in ones and twos, then in multiples, make their rapid, catastrophic tumble out of the picture plane.
Audiences experience these works by walking in and out of the projections through works that have abandoned the modernist window format and are more horizontal and oblique with no orientation to up or down. Nor in or out for that matter because we spend most of our time inserted into the shadowy depths of this work, watching in the dark, insinuated into the work as participants from a dismal culture. George Baker in his catalogue essay for 7 Lights considers this work “one of the darkest visions to trouble the landscape of contemporary art in at least a generation.”(3) I would prefer to think that Chan perhaps suggests hope for the future. He notes that Chan’s intention in moving the work into “horizontality” is to position us as outsiders within the never-ending, repetitious cycle, observing what relentlessly continues in the outside world. The Light of this world is out, but is the shadow where we now observe, a place for contemplation and a site of autonomy? Or, as with the Chapman’s’ installation, do we merely observe from outside the glass, like lost souls remembering past experiences within the confines of our contemporary hell. Goya’s etchings were considered such a contemporary hell that they were not exhibited for sixty-five years after his death.
The art critic, Hal Foster in his essay, “An Archival Impulse”, speaks to the relevance of the public site (the museum) as a depository for meaning and to the archive’s reconstructed meaning in contemporary art. (4) In the huge glass vitrines, Fucking Hell re-stages the past and evokes cultural memory by returning to archival material in its many cultural and historical references. Similarly, Chan’s work contradicts typical notions and linear presentations of time and also uses technology to explore images from the archive of history. For example, a previous video work, “My birds…Trash…The Future” (2004) references Francesca Goya’s tree in the work, “Great Deeds against the Dead” from the Disasters of War etching series (also appropriated by the Chapmans in several of their older works) but changes the significance of this historical work, in the age of digital manipulation, by substituting contemporary characters from popular culture. 1st Light depicts falling bodies that also make a critical association with recent history; Sept 11, 2001. His work, however, steps distinctly away from narrative and examines the gap between imagination, film and poetry while playing with still and moving images in a shared space. Both artists, in their different ways make historical information physically present and culturally relevant, and both artists emulate Goya’s sense of outrage regarding the atrocities of modern day conflict.
Literary theorist and political activist, Susan Sontag takes up the idea that a saturation of grizzly images has induced a kind of sympathy fatigue in society. (13) In her book, “Regarding the Pain of Others” she explores how our over-exposure to photographic images within the public realm has made us numb to what we see and unlikely to take constructive action. Even if our initial reaction is shock, images such as those seen of postcolonial Africa, Biafra and Rwanda for example, were shown with such regularity on television as to eventually seem normal. (71) In Iraq, many soldiers have access to digital cameras and computers with YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and streaming video readily available, “making everyone a tourist is other people’s reality.”4 These images show endlessly, she continues, that photos may capture a moment but conceal its history and therefore, merely reaffirm what we already think; that the enemy is wrong. The “memory museum is now mostly a visual one.” (Sontag 1) Many Americans did protest the images of torture seen in Abu Ghraib, appalled because, as Sontag makes clear here, soldiers have now, disturbingly, inserted themselves into the images of torture, smiling at the camera, unperturbed, the outcome broadcast across the digital world. “Unstoppable.” (Sontag 11) Then the visceral impact of works by both Chan and the Chapman’s, that does not stop short of addressing contemporary horror and despair, is not very different from what we see nightly on the television newscast and hardly different from the intent behind Goya’s suite of etchings.
The idea that all this is un-remitting, that things do not change and that society is detached from the distress of others is evident within the work of these artists. The Chapman brothers stare existing reality right in the face as Chan seeks to explore loss, our hopeful dreams and our worst fears. At first glance it seems that the apparent concerns in the Chapmans’ dioramas may have more agency than the dreamlike quality of Chan’s work, but neither piece works on the level of pure narrative. Chan sees his political action as addressing social issues and his visual praxis as “posing new questions for a different future.” He describes his work as “both comforting and disturbing…a gentle, anti–redemptive vision” which is powerfully evoked in 1st Light.5 “The end never comes”… has not come and has never revealed the nature of our universe. As Chan notes, “We only know how tired we feel.”
Reference Works Cited
- 1.Baker, George. “Paul Chan: The Image from Outside.”
- Paul Chan: The 7 Lights.London: Serpentine Gallery, New York: New Museum, 2008. 2-10.
- 2.Baker, Simon. “Jake Chapman on George Bataille: an interview with Simon Baker.”
- Papers of Surrealism. Issue 1 Winter 2003: 1-17.
- <www. Surrealismcentre.ac.uk.papersofsurrealism/index>
- 3.Chan, Paul. “The Wrong Times.” Andrea Bowers and Paul Chan: Power. Oct 2006.
- 4.Denny, Ned. “Keeping it Surreal” New Statesman 15 May, 2006: 22-24.
- 5.Foster, Hal. “An Archival Impulse.” October. 110 Fall 2004: 3-22.
- 6.Holborn, Mark. “Introduction.” Hell. London: Jonathon Cape, 2003. 11-15.
- 7.Mengham, Rod. “Jake and Dinos Chapman and the Surplus Value of Hell.”
- Fucking Hell. London: Jay Jopling/White Cube Gallery, 2008.
- 8.Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003.
- 9.Sontag, Susan. “ Regarding the Torture of Others.” New York Times, Magazine. 23 May,
- 2004. 1-11. <www.european-mediaculture.org>
You Thought You Were My Avatar: The Collaborative Work of Marijke Nap and Gerri York
Gerri York, CHOP journal, Volume Thirty-Three, Issue Two, 2008.
“One of the most important ideas for me is what I called the ‘criterion of coexistence’. Take the example of ancient Chinese and Japanese painting which always leaves space open for the viewer to complete the experience. This painting is an ellipsis. I like art that allows its audience to exist in the space opened up by it.”
The collaborative print media work of Marijke Nap and Gerri York began as a result of our application to do a residency at Grafisch Atelier Utrecht, a print studio in the Netherlands, and this relationship has continued to include a body of on-going cooperative work. Both of us had been independently creating imagery that experimented with diffused light, transparency and reflection, and had concurrently begun using a flat bed scanner to explore a variety of materials. Exploiting a similar working process and a shared purpose, we were able envision a collaborative image for an edition of prints for our residency at GAU.
The process of creating the print work involved continuing with the experimental scanning to construct a digital print as a basic matrix. Again, we worked on flat bed scanners, both independently and together at UBC’s Print Media Research Centre, combining our experiments with fluids, such as blood, milk, glues, inks and glycerin in a variety of viscosities, as well as transparent, more solid materials such as cellophane noodles and pickled ginger. At this particular point, the collaborative process necessitated a great deal of give and take to resolve, not only the formal elements of the imagery but time spent developing a reciprocal, mutual language for the development of ideas. A fortuitous intervention at one point involved the accidental scanning of a computer code-like numeric on the back of an old litho plate that somehow embedded itself with what we were scanning. This gave us an opportunity to think about the role of the computer in the creation of the digital image; that is, its code formulations, and to think about how this might relate to the imagery created with more traditional media. The print “You thought you were my avatar “was created by combining layers of our collaborative ideas in print processes.
Nap and York continued to foster an unbiased, flexible approach to the next stages of the work. Subsequent layers of the print included etching, lithography and silkscreen, all completed with collaborative imagery and mutually developed aims. For example, both of us independently completed some chalkboard drawings using the digital matrix as a reference point. The other part of the duo subsequently intervened on the drawing by erasing part or adding further drawing, resulting in a new form and more ideas. The white lines of the chalkboard drawing were then scanned into the computer and reversed to create a photo positive which became the black lines for the etched part of the print plate. A similar process was used to come up with the text part, printed as lithography. Using the digital imagery and drawings as reference points, we used an open, stream of consciousness approach to generate ideas for text; ideas from both poetry and prose in order to resolve the linguistic content. The final layer was a large, transparent blue, blob-like mass silk-screened over a portion of the print and, in its formal sense, served to determine and pull together the image. In the sense of creating an ellipsis, the space opened up within the work by our collaboration demonstrated an incomparable opportunity for inventive exploration.