New Alchemists

University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane
17 June – 3 September 2017

The first alchemists practiced a mix of philosophy and proto-chemistry in pursuit of the elusive philosopher’s stone and the elixir of immortality. The alchemists of today are engaged with new technological medias, altered forms of subjectivity, artificial life and reconstituted consciousness, tinkering away at the forefront of scientific endeavours. While their forebears sought an elegant unifying God principle or particle, one that fundamentally governed and determined all forms and even life, today’s alchemists delve into an expanding multiplicity of transmutation.

Ian Haig’s dinosaur sized bone, Some Thing (2011) pulses like a discarded remnant from a David Cronenberg film or a confounding footnote from ‘Origin of Species’. The quivering artifact makes us uneasy because the skin is peeled back, exposing the visceral interior, an aberration of something unknown or, as yet still coming into being. Haig characterises this as undifferentiated tissue, a term coined by William Burroughs. ‘No organ is constant as regards either function or position… sex organs sprout anywhere… rectums open, defecate and close… the entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments…’1

Other works in the exhibition provoke unsettling relationships between animals and humans. For I, Goat (2015), Thomas Thwaites arranged to develop goat leg prosthetics so that he could ‘live’ amongst a herd of goats in the Swiss Alps for a couple of days. His goal was to escape the pressures, endless demands and expectations of being a human, stuck in the modern age. Needless to say, the experience did not go entirely to plan. He found himself uncomfortably cold, the mountainous terrain was difficult to negotiate and eating grass was not entirely wholesome. The experience revealed that, even goats have behavioural norms and hierarchies and they too, must struggle every day, just to hold onto existence. The work garnered some mainstream media attention, although not all of it good.

May the Horse Live in Me! (2011) by the French, Art Orienté Objet duo, comprising artists Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin, entailed the injection of blood plasma from a horse into Laval-Jeantet’s body. The performance was documented from a one-hour performance in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2011. From the perspective of medical ethics, the injection of blood from a foreign animal species is unthinkable. Laval-Jeantet had to undertake extensive conditioning and testing to avoid the anaphylactic shock that might normally occur. To complete her experience of becoming a centaur she wore blade runner like leg extensions, with hoof like feet.

The works of Art Orienté Objet and Thwaites can be understood in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming-animal. The scapegoat (or centaur) becomes what cannot be classified or put in its place. Instead, the scapegoat is burdened and ridiculed with all that is abject and sent off into a desert wilderness. ‘[T]he scapegoat represents a new form of increasing entropy in the system of signs’.2 The scapegoat by its very nature, inhabits the hybrid, the in-between or unclassifiable, which is always pushing at the boundaries or limits.

Lu Yang’s video work Delusional Mandala (2015) features a digital non-sexual avatar of herself, which dances through hyper-mystical realms ‘to extend delusions, substituting religious perspective and fugacious meditation on the material world to produce ‘objective’ delusions’.3 Like Thwaites, Yang has also experimented with transcranial magnetic stimulation, a medical technique, appearing in the video, which uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. Throughout the video she also wears a gold stereotactic frame on her head, resembling a halo or aura. The stereotactic frame becomes a religious symbol, like an upgrade to the old Scientology E-Meter. Her avatar is sexually undifferentiated owing to the fact that most of us cannot chose our biological gender. For Yang, consciousness is a construct of a gendered and neurological embodiment—but what if all that could be manipulated at will?

Nadège Philippe-Janon’s Jerry on the Katabatic Wind (2016) featured a microcosm of crystals, collected oddities and reflective surfaces. The work was bathed in animated images which were themselves manipulated by a small weather station constantly transforming the installation. Michaela Gleave’s We Are Made of Stardust (2012) features the neon glow of a billboard with the title of the work illuminated in the seven colours of the spectrum. The billboard is orientated to face away from the viewer, suggesting obsolescence, or an unwillingness on our part to accept the message. Rather than containing a miraculous elixir of life, as the early alchemists advanced, we have to accept that, we are made up of nothing particularly different or unique. Even the light emitted from the billboard, is a photon, a particle, perhaps just recently stardust. On contemplation, one almost hopes to hear a buzzing or electrical crackling to warn us that something is wrong, it cannot be true. Gleave’s other work, The World Arrives at Night (Star Printer) (2014), made in collaboration with astronomer Michael Fitzgerald, features a dot matrix printer mounted on a table. The printer head shutters and twitches, etching away, as it recounts details of the stars as they appear on the horizon. The perforated paper cascades out, spiraling beneath the printer. The work suggests the precise mechanical predictability and unstoppable continuity of time.

Differing from the version of the New Alchemists exhibition shown at the Salamanca Arts Centre, for the University of Queensland Art Museum, Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr presented Victimless Leather, semi-living prototype of Stitch-less Jacket grown in a Technoscientific ‘Body’ (2004). Raspberry liquids in chemistry flasks grow a tiny ‘leather’ jacket from mouse tissue cells. The work intentionally provokes ethical jeopardy—what happens when a ‘leather’ jacket can be grown from animal cells, without association with the death of an animal? In an interview, Catts describes how, ‘at the level of tissue culture and at the level of the cells themselves there are no boundaries in terms of species, gender, or even age’.4 At this level, conventional systems of biological categorisation, based on a unified body, become increasingly blurred and problematic. In 2013, Dutch scientists at the University of Maastricht developed a beef burger, made entirely in the laboratory, offering the future potential of meat products, without the need for animals.

Art Oriente Objet, May the Horse Live In Me, 2011.

Video still; Michaela Gleave, We Are Made Of Stardust, 2011/12. Pine structure, LED’s, RGB controllers.

 

 

Lu Yang, Delusional Mandala, 2015. Digital still. Image courtesy of the artist

Ian Haig, Some Thing, 2011. Animatronic sculpture

notes: 

1. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch, Grove Press, New York, 1966, p.8.
2. Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987, p.116.
3. New Alchemists, Long Gallery, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, 2016.
4. See http://artandsciencemeeting.pl/teksty/half_living_hybrids_and_in_vitro_m...