IAN HAIG, Some Thing, 2011, robotic sculpture with sound by PH2, 110 × 65 × 47 cm. Courtesy the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane.

New Alchemists

University of Queensland Art Museum

“New Alchemists” at the University of Queensland Art Museum offered a range of speculations as to what is to be human or post-human. The exhibition put into contrast classical Western philosophies with scientific breakthroughs and a range of emerging feminist, queer and disability theories, bringing to the forefront the influence of these ideas on how we view our bodies. The artists in the exhibition created intersections between art, science and technology, and took on explorations “from the machinic to the visceral,” as curator Alicia King states in the exhibition catalog.

The most visceral work in the exhibition was Ian Haig’s kinetic sculpture, Some Thing (2011), a hyperreal, mechanical reconstruction of a lump of exposed bone, muscle, and assortment of tissue that appears to be breathing and contorting. The sculpture was placed in close proximity to Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr’s photograph of their cultivation of biological cells. Catts and Zurr’s pioneering work in biological art goes back to the 1990s, and in a sense they are the artist “alchemists” who paved the way for this current exhibition. The laboratory photograph—presenting a small specimen of “victimless leather”—is a representation of the ethical possibilities of current technology, while Haig’s piece delivers a much more aesthetically engaging speculation about technology’s emotional challenges. 

ORON CATTS and IONAT ZURR in collaboration with CORRIE VAN SICEThe Mechanism of Life — After Stephane Leduc, 2013, custom-designed rapid prototype printer, protocol from text published 1911, chemicals and dyes, 66 × 45 × 91 cm. Courtesy the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane. 

MICHAELA GLEAVEThe World Arrives at Night (Star Printer), 2014, fanfold paper, table, dot matrix printer and mini PC with custom computer program by Michael Fitzgerald, 90 × 60 × 107 cm. Courtesy the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane.

In another room, Michaela Gleave brought two odes to the greatness of our universe. The first, The World Arrives at Night (Star Printer) (2014) is a low-tech dot matrix printer connected to a highly advanced astronomical monitor to provide real-time data on the movement of stars currently visible in the Earth’s sky. Although the work is presented on a humble piece of office machinery, it acts as an interpreter of the vast, intimidating, nearly inconceivable concept of outer space. The second work takes its title from its bold LED text, which is at first facing away from viewers. Instead, what immediately attracted visitors was the ambient light of soothing, gently changing colors emitted from the rear of a freestanding wooden display board, which created the relaxing feel of a color therapy sauna. For those curious enough to peer around the other side, the lights make the bold statement, We Are Made of Stardust  (2011/2012). This work is a strong bodily, aesthetic experience and conceptual proposal. When paired with her star-monitoring installation, as it is in this exhibition, Gleave can meet our small bodies and our vast universe halfway.

MICHAELA GLEAVEWe Are Made of Stardust, 2011/2012, pine structure, LEDs and RGB controllers with color display: 2 min 30 sec (looped). Courtesy the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane.

ART ORIENTÉ OBJETMay the Horse Live in Me!, 2011, still from HD video: 24 min. Courtesy the artist and University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane.

An interspecies experiment, May the Horse Live in Me! (2011) by Art Orienté Objet, further pushed viewers’ perceptions of the human body. Presented as a video of a performance, the work brings to mind philosopher Thomas Nagel’s essay “What is it like to be a bat?”. Nagel argued that even if we understood every shred of scientific knowledge about a bat’s sonar system, we still would not know what it is like to be a bat with those sensory tools. In this work, one member of the artist duo, Marion Laval-Jeantet, receives a horse blood transfusion in an attempt to know what it is like to be a horse. In a French-language article, Laval-Jeantet later expressed how the experience made her feel “hyperpowerful, hypersensitive and hypernervous” and “a little bit like a horse.”

The University of Queensland Art Museum is one of two university-based institutions to host this touring exhibition, and within the context of the museum’s recent earnest push for cross-disciplinary collaboration, the exhibition is an ideal proposal as to what this new direction could look like. Besides its general artistic merits, this exhibition can reach specialist audiences among the medical, scientific and philosophical academic communities, who can in turn provide new value to the artworks.

New Alchemists” is on view at University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, until September 3, 2017.

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