Adelaide biennial: the convergence fantasy

Jena Woodburn

The only real hope for a sustainable future involves a creative synthesis of the arts and the sciences to develop new ways of meeting our needs and our hopes.
Ian Lowe, “Bringing Art and Science Together”, conVerge, catalogue, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2002.

Lowe’s words are lettered on the wall of the conVerge exhibition highlighting the theme “Where art and science meet” and emphasising the role of artists as explorers, commentators and mediators of technology and its impacts. It declares an interest beyond the simple theme of art influenced by science, and focuses—in theory at least—on the benefits of cross-disciplinarity and the advantages of collaboration. The accompanying catalogue essays all advocate attempts to transcend the traditional boundaries between the 2 fields as they are usually perceived, that is, as opposing and mutually exclusive. This, it is ambitiously proposed, will aid in the development of a more complete understanding of the world we inhabit and the complex interrelationships at work within it.

This holistic approach is illustrated by the inclusion of the large Ngurrara canvas 1 and Marrawarra and Jila by artists of the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency that introduce the viewer to the exhibition. They are neither visually nor conceptually what is expected in an exhibition about ‘science.’ Characterising “Indigenous Knowledge” as a “science engagement” initially seems a contortion. Their incorporation however makes more sense in light of this conception of science as a culturally specific knowledge system rather than a discrete field of knowledge, although the commitment to such an approach is belied (and the works possibly reduced to tokenism?) by the other works in the exhibition which do not take such a conceptually broad approach.

Many of these works utilise elements associated with popular conceptions of science: light and sound effects, computer-generated images and robotics. The scientific theme is therefore most apparent in execution and their overly technological ‘look’ tends to reduce them to illustrations rather than excavations of their respective issues. Adam Donovan’s Perimetry involves a tripod-mounted camera, sensitive to movement, that swivels to follow visitors as they move around the gallery. It might speak of surveillance and control, but its straightforward presentation, and the fact that it was produced as the result of Donovan’s residency at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, renders the instrument gadget-like, more suited to the curiosities of a science centre. Pig Wings, by Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary, is a recreated laboratory in which pig bone tissue is being grown in the shape of wings. Pertinent as the issues it raises are—the cloistered laboratory could easily be cultivating animal organs for use in humans—the work seems to be merely the simple transplantation of equipment from a scientific location to an art-specific one. Fascinating though the experiment is, the focus remains prosaic.

Patricia Piccinini engages with similar issues in her work Synthetic Organism 2 (SO2): The Siren Mole, though she bridges the art/science divide more skillfully. Her invented creature, the blind and lumpy Siren Mole, is presented in a museum/zoo-style display case, complete with droppings and an artificial backdrop. These specimens are accompanied by 3 large photographs that document the creature in a laboratory, which, as the catalogue notes, is its natural habitat. A (literally) constructed animal, the Siren Mole is presented as a consequence of genetic manipulation, not an abstract “what if?”, but its result. Piccinini has brought the technology to life, and in doing so withdraws the luxury we now have of being able to speculate on our reactions to invented life.

The majority of works are based on current controversial issues. Martin Walch explores the aftermath of mining in Over written/Under written, which profiles the landscape of the Mount Lyell mine in Tasmania. Whilst Walch is more interested in the apocalyptic scenery as the “new wilderness” than an explicit condemnation of the associated degradation, the photographs he exhibits are as strong as environmental campaign images. Their presentation, however, avoids such documentary sensationalism: peering through eyepieces at the illuminated stereo photographs, housed in wall-mounted packing cases, the viewer is transported by the vivid miniature detail of the enclosed world. The convergence of man and nature is undeniably illustrated in the ‘wilderness’ that is left after human intervention.

In a time when emotions have been reduced to chemicals and personality is determined by genetic sequence, Justine Cooper’s Transformers is a dynamic and mesmerising exploration of identity and individuality. Various constituents that distinguish a person—faces, fingerprints, DNA—are projected on the 2 sides of a long tent like structure. These are combined with poetry and statements that explore personality and the factors that act upon it: “I feel more Chinese because I am phenotypically Chinese”; “I believe that over 60% of our personality is determined by genes.”

The predominance of technology-based works mean that certain others do not fit. Jason Hampton’s small illustrative paintings such as Kidney Problems in Aboriginal Australia have now Reached Epidemic Proportions, combine intricate Aboriginal imagery with computer graphics. Although his illustrations of a biological analysis of Aboriginal health are engaging, the works are too small and too detailed to be carefully considered amongst the many large installation works. Fiona Hall’s Cell Culture is also in alien surroundings, with its quiet, expressive and decidedly un-technological exploration of DNA modification. Hall has created beaded and plastic animals whose various body parts have been replaced with Tupperware containers, highlighting the focus on ‘usefulness’ that directs much research.

The disparate nature of the works undermines the coherence of the exhibition, though this is possibly the result of its being organised by an 8-person ‘working group’ (rather than curators). While the stated focus is both pertinent and commendable, the works fail to accord with it. It is interesting, and enlightening, to compare the 2 disciplines, their associated structures of knowledge and methodologies, and to realise the potential that collaboration offers. In conVerge, however, the meeting of art and science remains conflicted.

Adelaide Biennial, conVerge: Where Art and Science Meet, Art Gallery of South Australia, March 1 – April 25

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 6-7

© Jena Woodburn; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002