Life and death, and the membranes inbetween

Urszula Dawkins, semipermeable (+), SymbioticA

Verena Friedrich,  Cellular Performance, 2011-12, still

Verena Friedrich, Cellular Performance, 2011-12, still

From the recognisably organic form of a lab-grown tree-fungus dress to slick, cold-steel missiles like infiltrating spores, the works in SymbioticA’s semipermeable (+) elicit both pleasure and discomfort as they push science, and ‘wet biology practices’ in particular, towards and through a range of conceptual limits. I reached semipermeable (+) after a stroll through Experimenta’s Speak to Me, sharing the Level 4 Powerhouse space. Stepping from the family-filled, playful halls of twittering mechanical peacocks and kaleidoscopic turntables into a room full of cool glass, metal clamps and tubing was indeed like slipping through a membrane.

WA’s SymbioticA is world-renowned for its emphasis on hands-on collaborations between artists and scientists; for pushing the bounds of biotechnology and prodding with equal vigour at its ethical limits. While a few works in semipermeable (+) eschew the lab-ware in favour of traditional installation, the overall aesthetic is strongly grounded in the microscopic, the genetic, and forms of living (or dead) containment.

A hallmark of SymbioticA is the work of founder Oron Catts with Ionat Zurr, and it’s great to see their now-iconic Victimless Leather (2004) here – a living, miniature coat grown from continuously dividing human and mouse cell lines, and ‘fed’ by an automated nutrient drip. Alongside it is a new work by Catts, Zurr and Corrie van Sice, The Mechanism of Life – After Stephane Leduc (2013). Pointing to Leduc’s 1911 theory that life is merely a chemical process, a custom-built apparatus ‘prints’ blobs of ‘protocells’ into a petri dish, the inks and dyes spreading to form hexagonal arrays that miraculously ‘grow’ before your eyes.

From life, to un-life: a dead cane toad makes music – albeit very, very quietly. It’s a sort of fuzzy, low, soft sound, usually inaudible, but processed for the human ear in Cat Hope’s Sound of Decay (2013). The corpse itself is a vaguely disturbing form almost obscured by the condensation that lines the walls of its sealed glass container, and as such evokes death and a kind of elongated time-scale more surely, perhaps, than a clear view.

German artist Verena Friedrich takes the endless promises of the cosmetic industry and manipulates skin cells to tout the benefits of ‘cosmeceuticals’, displaying the results in a video installation titled Cellular Performance (2011–12). Rendered in electric blues, stark whites and rich blacks, the cells with their tree-like appendages and neon brightness form words: natural living things infused with a decidedly ambiguous dose of consumer culture.

Nigel Helyer, Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013 (installation, detail)

Nigel Helyer, Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste (SPPS), 2013 (installation, detail)

Almost opposite Friedrich’s micro-billboards, Nigel Helyer’s slick, steel, contaminant-bearing missiles evoke both fertilisation and all-out biological warfare at macro scale. Intricately detailed, their crafting is both sci-fi and organic, reminiscent of Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s Museum of Copulatory Organs (Sydney Biennale, 2012). Carrying SPPS – “an omnisexual bacterium, ingesting histories and narratives that connect through powerful metaphorical bonds” – Helyer’s missiles have a disturbing ‘biological’ appearance, less like bombs than seed carriers shot across borders with the aim of catching their sharp fins on unsuspecting hosts.

Several further works in semipermeable (+) employ the use of cultures and cell lines: foreskin cells reverse engineered to create a functioning neural network (Guy Ben-Ary and Kirsten Hudson); a human/canine hybridoma (Benjamin Forster); fluorescently transformed embryonic kidney cells; virally ‘tattooed’ skin cells (Tagny Duff). These explorations of ‘what we can do’ with biological matter feed an artistic space that holds many conflicts – and there’s a strong sense of the (desirable or undesirable?) ‘semipermeability’ of a natural domain whose borders were once considered impenetrable.

The ubiquity of sealed glass cases, plugged flasks and contained fluids – all necessary for containing the biohazards or fragile life-forms within – has a certain irony, given the theme of the membrane and its qualities of porosity, transfer and exchange. In semipermeable (+), we are locked out of life’s processes, except when they are simulated. And this, in a sense, is telling: the rigidity of our control over nature demands that we’re protected from the renegade species, from the contaminant, from the challenge to our integrity – whether it’s from biohazard or infiltrating thought. The mix of sterile glass and proliferating life (or death) within is potent; because ultimately the ideas that emerge around this work are what slip across our perceptive borders, infecting us whether we touch, breathe, brush up close, or not.

10 June 2013