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The Spiral Time Concept at the Sideshow
Entering Sci-Art at Brisbane's Science Museum I pass a series of bright and imposing colourful alchemical symbols. The one which stays in my mind and haunts me somewhat like an apparition is that of a glowing snake consuming its own tail. Is this the art of Sceance or of Science? But more on this beginning at the end...
In the nineteenth century, exhibits in museums often appealed as much to the sensationalist desires of their patrons as they did to any thirst for scientific 'fact'. Both museum and the fairground shared a fascination with strangeness. Both were repositories of the fantastic, the bizarre and the shocking. The Sci -Art exhibition was held at the Sciencentre (itself a nineteenth century building) in Brisbane and, I suspect, evoked in many a similar set of responses. The show's themes were reflected in the work of a handful of contemporary artists who employ various aspects of scientific visualisation, procedure and methodology in their work.
Sci-Art was characterised by an obsessive attention to detail, and the work, in many cases, bore the hallmark of traditional scientific presentation, complete with carefully notated facts, footnotes and details about the circumstances of its creation, the various tools used, and so on. The work, like its counterparts in the sober domain of academic scientific disciplines, explored notions of compartmentalised categories of various phenomena. An obsession with labels and specialisation persists in the sciences as it does to a large extent in the arts as well.
Think of the solid boundary-affirming terminology of science: Medical, Astronomical, Forensic, Anthropological, Entomological, etectera. At the Sci-Art show, these aesthetic escapees from the lab have been stripped of any dubiously exclusive claims to some Great External Truth, and have (re)entered the Victorian Age of Wonder. The myriad examples seem to have been washed up on the shores of pre-Millennial consciousness. And some are very strange indeed. The hideous, manufactured mermaids which were displayed in the sideshows of nineteenth century England and are included in the CD-ROM, Of Monsters and Miracles, by Roy Stringer, are one example. The fact that the 'mermaids' ended up being nothing more than carved dried manta rays does little to dispel their garish appeal. Like all good sideshows, the smokeand mirrors are part of the magic. This excellent CD-ROM is an offshoot of that merry bunch of pranksters at the Fortean Times and was well worth the price of entry. Of
Monsters and Miracles is an electronic wunderkammer of weirdness. it has lurid images and gives vivid accounts by 'experts' in the field of such genuinely seriously scientific phenomena as UFOs, Ghosts, Poltergeists, Fairies, Magic, Strange Animals, Sea Monsters, Psychic Powers, Religious experience, Stigmata, Mermaids, Famous Fakes and Frauds and more... The Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, The Minnesota Iceman, the Turin Shroud, Mystery Animals and Curiosities.
Another Wonder of the Ages is Troy Innocent's Soundform with its swimming digital hybridised forms which live amid an electronically generated habitat. The work represents the ultimate abstraction of an environment, or rather, two environments. A red circle delineates a region which is in turn framed by the dimensions of the screen. Floating, symmetrical, pictogram-like icons enter and depart the region outside the circle. If the shapes collide, occasionally they mate and generate new icons. This work follows on from the more elaborate installation Iconica, in which participants could similarly cross-breed icon-forms, communicate with them, and so on. Sound
Forms' simple video-projected shapes betray an eerie intelligence and purposefulness- that of breeding and multiplying like some informational self-sustaining Tamagochi society, whose primary offspring is music and
The head-worn optical equipment-prosthetic-jewellery by Adam Donovan augments the vision of the wearer and simultaneously plays with the logic of seeing and looking. One can see the world from behind, upside down. The text accompanying the work reads thus: 'These head-worn lenses are a symbol for the impossibility of recreating an experience. The works let you see through eyes other than your own. If there is one statement that these works represent it would be: "The containment of self by self".'
Donovan's beautifully machined and hand-made objects are of brass and solder, and evoke the aesthetic of hand-made scientific instruments from a forgotten time. They seem almost speculative, science fiction additions to telescopes, microscopes, and other instruments which magnify the distant unknown. Only here the difference is that being visually processed is nothing less strange than the world around the wearer. In presenting this world as if it were something which should be measured and viewed with the specialist's aloofness the artist has effectively reclaimed the immediate environment as a site for perpetual and ongoing analysis and examination, and again, wonderment and continual reappraisal.
The female human body as site for a kind of cybercinematic fantastic voyage is presented by Justine Cooper: her electro-scanned self-portrait video, RAPT, lays bare some inner mysteries but also the hidden truths which lie deeper than those revealed by any technological or scientific means of visualisation. This eerie fly-through of the electronically mediated representation of the body as a kind of ghost-like topology evokes the work of the visible human project (the filleting and electronic digitisation of a freshly killed death-row prisoner). It also evokes the
work of cyberfeminist conceptual activist art groups like the Bureau of Inverse Technology who similarly seek to
problematise the rigidity of function to which medical imaging devices are restricted, in order to examine and contest the boundaries which separate and non-experts from experts. Doctors and hospitals embody institutional power. Medical imaging technology often represents the political expression of a medical institution's claim to authority (and to state funds). Through the nature of the technology, the form of authority is one of centralised systematised hierarchical (and usually male) power. Its language is one of exact outcomes and measurable quanta. I suspect that, for Cooper, the process of obtaining the video material is, in a sense, part of its message. RAPT embodies its own manifesto. Artists and people generally have the right to negotiate authority in order to get answers, to be included in the process, to fulfil a desire, or to make manifest a need––in this case to see inside ones own body and treat it like a terrain of the beautiful, a realm of the imagination.
Patricia Adams back-lit Novajet transparencies borrow imagery from the world of alchemy and the periodic table: the series is titled 'Tribikos, Ourobouros, Beryllium'. These ornate and complex images transmit a vivid mythic resonance through the juxtaposition of form, colour and texture and also through being back-lit. They are composed of electron microscope photographs of moulds which have been digitally manipulated and coloured. For me the most striking example is that of the stylised snake of Greek legend, the serpent Ourobouros who, according to the accompanying text, was able to eat himself and be reborn. I have seen this image before, this self-eating snake. It is an image from medieval Europe, and predating that, ancient Celtic mythology. It evokes Marx's phrase, 'those that fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them ' and the name of the band 'Pop Will Eat Itself'. This eternal cycle of rebirth is the basis for myth in most cultures and as the century dims its sideshow lights for the last time, Ourobouros mouth is about to bite his tail yet again.