York Mediale 2018: Playing with shadows

Visiting York Mediale 2018 for New Scientist, 19 October 2018

The dancers performing Strange Stranger at this year’s inaugural York Mediale (tagline: “Art, Meet the Future”) weren’t just moving about in the shadows. They were leaving shadows behind them, thanks to wrist-worn tracking devices and a complex, computer-driven LED-lit set. And over the course of the festival, which ran from 27 September to 6 October this year, visitors were able to explore the set and leave their own shadows in the air.

Alexander Whitley and his dance company have caught our eye before with 8 Minutes, a visceral and surprisingly true-to-fact dance about the internal processes of the sun. Their new piece is a play on the concept of the “data shadow” – a digital profile formed from all the information we unintentionally leave behind through our routine use of technology. That Whitley has turned to the dark for Strange Stranger says something about the eeriness that’s been slipping into contemporary art for some while.

It’s a mordant piece, and perhaps technically not quite there yet, because the dancers aren’t just leaving shadows; they’re actually getting lost in shadows. The net effect of all this energetic movement, then, is a sense of creeping powerlessness.

The same mood – part melancholy, part anxious – also marks Strata Rock Dust Stars, the flagship exhibition at this new media arts festival, which, it’s just been announced, is due to return in 2020.

Curated by Mike Stubbs, director of Liverpool’s FACT gallery, the exhibition runs until 25 November. Melancholy notes are struck by David Jacques, whose installation Oil is the Devil’s Excrement (2017) reveals by degrees that we have never been in control of the oil that powers our civilisation: it’s oil that has been in control of us. (You don’t have to take his word for it, either: the title of the piece is actually a quote Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo, the founder of OPEC.)

Isaac Julien’s Stones Against Diamonds is another powerful hymn to our fatal misreading of our own values. Shot in a remote region of south-east Iceland in 2015, it juxtaposes luxury goods with jewel-like icescapes and ice blocks and advertisement-shiny waterfalls. Ice, it transpires, is the ultimate luxury good being celebrated (or mourned) among these multiple video panels, by a glamorous isolated figure (Vanessa Myrie) who, we can only suppose, has consumed everything else there is to consume.

Like every other living thing on this planet, humans are destined to expand to exploit all resources available to them, at which point they’ll plunge off a demographic cliff. There’s no tragedy in this. The tragedy is that we know it’s happening. We know the destruction we’re causing. We know what the consequences will be.

Strata Rock Dust Stars offers the visitor various coping mechanisms by which we might deal with this realisation. Liz Orton’s The Longest and Darkest of Recollections (2016) fuses geology, photography and memoir in a museum-like display that captures perfectly our poignant struggle to assign meaning to a world far older and bigger and dumber than ourselves. Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s on-going obsession with moon-dwelling geese (the conceit of the 17th-century bishop and proto-sf author Francis Godwin) offers fancy and absurdity as a palliative for our tragic condition. In a delicious parody of all those Anthropocene maunderings, her latest venture, Moon Core (2018), asks whether the droppings and egg-shells of moon geese might not have entered the lunar geological record.

When fancy and imagination collide with the real world, however, the result is not always charming. Worlds in the Making, an early video work by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, who make work under the name Semiconductor, creates, if you can picture such a thing, a sort of paranoid geology, perfectly false and perfectly believable, and a dreadful reminder of how much we rely on trust for our understanding of the world.

Another way of coping with the tragedy of the human condition is to laugh at it. Away from the flagship exhibition, I stumbled across a new work by Rodrigo Lebrun, a young Brazilian-born artist who has very little patience with the seriousness of much contemporary art. “It’s just another way of ostracising the public,” he told me, as he unlocked the shipping container where his barely finished video installation, Green (Screen) Dreams, advertises the apocalyptic charm of Sunthorpe — think grim Humber Valley Scunthorpe rebranded as a tropical holiday destination minutes before a collapsed ice shelf-triggered tsunami arrives, coincident with the entire planet bursting into flame.

Hijacking the hyperbolic visuals of television advertising, Lebrun has created an advertisement for the future: a world in which the vagiaries of environmental collapse afford us little pockets of tremendous commercial opportunity in the seconds before Armageddon, and where all the difficult questions about population and pollution, environmental integrity and resource depletion, are breezily crammed into an eyeblink-fast on-screen reminder that “Terms and Conditions Apply”.

“Instead of creating solutions, we’ve been creating these weird alternate realities,” Lebrun says, “CGI-driven entertainments to numb the senses.” His installation blows the gaffe on this confidence trick. It’s frightening, and funny, and above all it’s energising. Commissioned by Invisible Dust, an environmental arts charity we last encountered driving a gigantic mobile cinema around the Scottish coastGreen (Screen) Dreams gets its next outing At North Lincolnshire Museum from 19 January next year. But that’s surely only the beginning for the piece and for Lebrun himself, whose combination of wit and savagery seems as rare, these days, as a moon-goose’s teeth.

Yunchul Kim: Craft work

Visiting Dawns, Mine, Crystal by Yunchul Kim at the Korean Cultural Centre, London. For New Scientist, 27 October 2018.

NOSTALGIA was not the first word that sprung to mind when I visited a show at London’s Korean Cultural Centre by South Korean artist Yunchul Kim. At first glance, indeed, Kim’s art appears intimidatingly modern.

But for the scientists who are Kim’s most committed audience (and eager collaborators), there is something wonderfully old-fashioned about the way he works. Kim’s studio in Seoul is full of materials: homemade ferrofluids, gels, metals, all kinds of reagents, acids and oils. While labs (and not a few artists’ studios) grow more sterile and digital, his workspace remains stubbornly wedded to stuff. The artist’s wry description of his practice – “touching, staring, waiting for things to dry” – captures something of science’s lost materiality.

Kim’s latest work (see) shows a contraption in three parts that turns cosmic rays into bubbles suspended in space, a copper-aluminium sludge, stirred by hidden magnetic orreries, and a shattered gelatin rainbow. What are these but the results of a strange science that is the outcome of some spectacularly purposeless noodling?

The physicists at CERN loved it, and Kim soon found out why: “I make all my own machinery, and so do they,” he says. “Their love of craft is everywhere, from the colour for their cabling to the careful labelling of everything.”

Kim’s art is a reminder that science isn’t just there to be useful. It is also a craft. It’s something humans do, and something that, when presented this well, we are bound to enjoy.

Fakery at the Science Gallery, Dublin

Visiting the Science Gallery, Dublin for New Scientist, 14 April 2018 

Had you $1800 to spend on footwear in 2012, you might have considered buying a pair of RayFish sneakers. Delivery would have taken a while because you were invited to design the patterned leather yourself. You would have then have had to wait while the company grew a pair of transgenic stingrays in their Thai aquaculture facility up to the age where their biocustomised skins could be harvested.

Alas, animal rights activists released the company’s first batch of rays into the wild before harvesting could take place, and the company suspended trading. Scuba divers still regularly report sightings of fish sporting the unlikely colourations that were RayFish’s signature.

RayFish was, you’ll be pleased to hear, a con, perpetrated by three Dutch artists five years ago. It now features in Fake, the latest show at the Science Gallery, Dublin, an institution that sells itself as the place “where art and science collide”.

The word “collide” is well chosen. “We’re not experts on any one topic here,” explains Ian Brunswick, the gallery’s head of programming, “and we’re not here to heal any kind of ‘rift’ between science and art. When we develop a show, we start from a much simpler place, with an open call to artists, designers and scientists.” They ask all the parties what they think of the new idea, and what can they show them. Scientists in particular, says Brunswick, often underestimate which elements of their work will captivate.

Founded under the auspices of Dublin’s Trinity College, the Science Gallery is becoming a global brand thanks to the support of founding partner Google.org. London gets a gallery later this year; Bangalore in 2019. The aim is to not to educate, but to inspire visitors to educate themselves.

Brunswick recalls how climate change, in particular, triggered this sea-change in the way public educators think about their role: “I think many science shows have been operating a deficit model: they fill you up like an empty vessel, giving you enough facts so you agree with the scientists’ approach. And it doesn’t work.” A better approach, Brunswick argues, is to give the audience an immediate, visceral experience of the subject of the show.

For example, in 2014 Dublin’s Science Gallery called its climate change show “Strange Weather”, precisely to explore the fact that weather and climate change are different things, and that weather is the only phenomenon we experience directly on a daily basis. It got people to ask how they knew what they knew about the climate – and what knowledge they might be missing.

Freddie Stevens

Playfulness characterises the current show. Fakery, it seems, is bad, necessary, inevitable, natural, dangerous, creative, and delightful, all at once. There are fictional animals here preserved in jars besides real specimens: are they fake, or merely out of context? And you can (and should) visit the faux-food deli and try a caramelised whey product here from Norway that everyone calls cheese because what the devil else would you call it?

Then there’s a genuine painting that became a fake when its unscrupulous owner manipulated the artist’s signature. And the Chinese fake phones that are parodies you couldn’t possibly mistake for the real thing: from Pikachu to cigarette packets. There’s a machine here will let you manipulate your fake laugh until it sounds genuine.

Fake’s contributing artists have left me with the distinct suspicion that the world I thought I knew is not the world.

Directly above RayFish’s brightly patterned sneakers, on the upper floor of the gallery, I saw Barack Obama delivering fictional speeches. A work in progress by researchers from the University of Washington, Synthesizing Obama is a visual form of lip-synching in which audio files of Obama speaking are converted into realistic mouth shapes. These are then blended with video images of Obama’s head as he delivers another speech entirely.

It’s a topical piece, given today’s accusatory politics, and a chilling one.

Art, Science and the Truth

Here’s something for the evening of Thursday 27 April 7-10 pm.

Designer and trouble-maker Leila Johnston has invited me to join Katharine Vega (chroma.space) and Dr Sean Power (Trinity College, Dublin) at the Site Gallery in Sheffield to ask whether art, science and belief are “branches of the same tree” as Albert Einstein once said, and what happens when some of those branches begin to crack?

Full details here.

 

D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the man who shaped biology and art

Biomorphic portrait of D'Arcy Thompson

Darren McFarlane, Scarus, Pomacanthus, 2012, oil on canvas. (University of Dundee Museum Services © the artist)

Even as geneticists like Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobzhansky were revealing the genetic mechanisms that constrain how living things evolve, Thompson was revealing the constraints and opportunities afforded to living things by physics and chemistry. Crudely put, genetics explains why dogs, say, look like other dogs. Thompson did something different: he glimpsed why dogs look the way they do.

For New Scientist, 1 February 2017

Mendeleev’s revenge

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Visiting the exhibition Periodic Tales at Compton Verney for New Scientist, 27 October 2015

The haunting, slightly bilious yellow-green of uranium glass fascinated Victorian interior designers. Uranium metal glows green in ultraviolet light, and this property lends uranium glass a subtle yet compelling inner fire.

The Victorians made any number of knick-knacks out of the stuff. The exhibition Periodic Tales at Compton Verney – a stately home near Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, best known for its collection of British folk art – boasts a piano foot, an ornamental castor fashioned to spread the weight of the parlour piano.

It is mildly radioactive, which triggers all manner of safety protocols. “We installed it using special gloves,” says Penelope Sexton, the exhibition’s curator. “I shudder to think what any passing Victorian would have made of us.”

Sexton is leading Compton Verney’s long-term campaign to become a contemporary arts venue as well as a “grand day out” for visitors from London and central England.

Periodic Tales combines simple objects made from different elements – a tiny lead figurine from the Aegean islands is the oldest, dating from around 2500 BC – with art that draws contemporary mischief from Mendeleev’s world-changing periodic table of the elements of 1869.

Before modern chemistry, it was assumed that the properties of fundamental materials were innate and could be combined. By that logic, blending sulphur’s yellow and mercury’s sheen ought to have made gold. Mendeleev, a Russian chemist and inventor, spoiled that happy dream, codifying the elements we recognise today in a table that reflects a profound atomic reality we know to be true but cannot directly see.

To read the periodic table is to be confronted by how baffling the world is.

Solids, liquids and gases nestle against each other for reasons that cannot be unpicked by simply resorting to an intuitive understanding of the human-scale world. The queer thing about calling this show Periodic Tales is that there are no tales to tell, only a stunned acknowledgement that one can, in the same moment, both be handed the keys to the material world, and firmly locked out of ever intuiting it.

The artworks Sexton has chosen struggle for purchase. Simon Patterson’s periodic tables of celebrity are facile. And Cornelia Parker‘s circle of crushed silver ornaments is almost as pretty as a well-lit silver object would have been had she not crushed it in the first place. Maria Lalic‘s chrome mirrors are pure Ikea (pictured below).

Periodic Tales: all the elements of a splendid failure

But there are some stunning successes, too. The frames of John Newling‘s wall-mounted Value; Coin, Note and Eclipse (pictured at the start of this story) capture the alchemical transformation of a living plant into gold coinage, by way of pressed kale leaves and the judicious application of gold leaf. It is a narrative piece, rooted firmly in the safe ground of material production, value and exchange.

It is significant, I think, that other standout pieces also explore the way some elements are more or less effortlessly turned into cultural signs – quite literally in the case of Fiona Banner‘s neon Brackets (An Aside).

There is much else in the show worth seeing: Danny Lane‘s Blue Moon makes cobalt positively drinkable. And there’s plenty to think about: another work by Parker, Stolen Thunder, is a display of handkerchiefs stained by the tarnish rubbed off famous objects.

But the real draw – counter-intuitive though this is – is the necessary failure of the show. Mendeleev’s table is a masterpiece of objectivity. Its truth refuses to be anthropomorphised, moralised upon, or otherwise domesticated. Undaunted, Sexton brings us right to the edge of what art can do to communicate science.

David Jane: Inner visions

A virus that robbed David Jane of his language and memory left him struggling to understand what had happened to him. His salvation was to recreate his condition on canvas. For New Scientist, 10 January 1998

 

DAVID JANE’s studio in south London is falling to pieces. Plaster has come
off the walls, revealing the wattling and brick beneath. Felt sags from a hole
in the roof. Every fractured surface frames another deeper, broken layer. It is
easy at first—and painful—to see parallels between the dereliction
of Jane’s studio and his paintings, which are based on magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) scans of his own, damaged brain. “It can be a very heavy
experience to be drawing things that you know are inside you,” muses Jane. “They
look like animals—like they have separate lives.”

Jane calls his work self-portraiture, albeit of a unique, and at first
disturbing, kind. Wax surfaces bleed away to reveal other surfaces beneath.
These frames within frames reflect the way the medical scanner slices his brain
into a sequence of flat, two-dimensional images. But Jane’s fusion of art
and science is not about deterioration. It is about understanding—and more
than that, it is about recovery and regeneration.

Until 1989, Jane enjoyed a growing reputation as a painter. But that year,
while on holiday in Rio de Janeiro, he collapsed. When he woke up in London some
weeks later, he could not speak, write or recognise his family or himself. At
first he had no memory, and no awareness of the passage of time. Days, minutes,
months all seemed of equal duration, so that even when some memories did return,
he could make little sense of them. On one occasion he left the hospital in his
dressing gown and boarded a bus to visit his mother, who was dead. Much of his
recovery since then has been spent organising his experience into some kind of
sensible order.

What Jane didn’t know during his stay in hospital—what nobody could
tell him—was that he had contracted herpes simplex encephalitis. For
reasons that are still unknown, the virus has a predilection for certain areas
of the brain in some people. The body’s response is to dispatch immune cells to
the site of infection. This causes swelling which, together with the virus, can
kill off neurons and literally leave holes in the brain. In Jane, the virus
targeted the left temporal lobe, which is responsible for memory and
language.

Jane’s basic faculties began to return within a few weeks and he was able to
leave hospital. But it was not until June 1990—when new MRI scans were
taken—that he began to understand what had happened to him. Because he had
lost his language skills to the virus, Pat, his wife, realised that pictures
would be the easiest, most direct way of explaining to him what had happened. It
was she who first showed him the brain scans.

“The doctors were reluctant to show me them,” he remembers. “But the fact is,
I found them beautiful.” Jane could also see from the scans that the left-hand
side of his brain was different from the right. “So I began to understand what
had happened inside my brain.”

Jane began to use his skills as an artist to make simple ink and pencil
copies of the pictures he was shown. The copies were crude and amorphous,
literal reflections of the scans. But in the eight years since the virus struck,
Jane has made a remarkable recovery—and it’s all there in his work. His
drawings of tissue have given way to paintings that depict images of the mind
and then to full-scale exhibitions. Visceral and urgent, Jane’s images are an
amalgam of abstract style and biography, combined in ways which he could never
have imagined before his illness. And his originality is attracting attention:
the canvases have fired the enthusiasm of critics and collectors.

Jane’s growth as an artist has coincided with a burgeoning ability to face
hard truths. “I’ve been using a computer lately to manipulate some recent
scans,” he says. “It’s been depressing, seeing so clearly how much brain I’m
missing.”

The herpes infection left Jane inhabiting a very strange world. Just how
strange can be gleaned from the fact that he had to relearn many things from
scratch, such as the names of different parts of the body. His regained mastery
of speech is something he can largely credit to his son, Frank, who was born in
1991. The child’s appetite for bedtime stories gave Jane a perfect
reintroduction to words. Reading to his son, he acquired the language by easy
stages, as a child might.

Jane’s recovery is not total. Names still elude him, and reading is difficult
and slow. “Even manipulating images on a computer is taking me ages,” he laughs.
“I can’t follow the bloody menus.” Nevertheless, it is staggering how much he
has relearnt—and how he relearnt it. His damaged brain’s appetite for
learning continues to amaze him. “I remember I wanted to learn English,” he
says, “but what I ended up with at first was something completely different. The
spellings were all wrong, but they had this weird internal consistency. It was
as though my brain knew better than I did how to learn. It was rewiring itself
into a shape that suited itself. Me, I was just along for the ride.”

That sense of alienation—of surfing a healing wave over which he has no
control—has never entirely gone away. “I feel I have a relationship with
what’s inside of me,” he says. “Obviously I can’t actually separate `it’ from
`me’, but there is some sort of dialogue there.” Jane has learnt to harness that
dialogue in his work. “The distance I feel between my self and the brain I see
in the scans—I try to turn that into the distance that an artist has to
their subject,” he says.

Over the past eight years he has continued to succeed at his task. As he got
better, the images from which he works—the scans
themselves—underwent remarkable technical improvement. Unlike the earliest
images of his brain, MRI today generates high-resolution colour pictures. These
advances have helped to fuel Jane’s imagination. “Over time, my paintings get
less and less like illustrations,” he explains. “These days you won’t find
literal correspondences between the paintings and the scans. On the other hand,
thanks to those scans, my understanding of what happened, and what each part of
the brain does, gets more and more precise.”

In 1994, Jane began to add solidity and texture to his works by painting in
wax. For a long time he has wanted to get rid of the signatures in his
work—the array of distinct brush strokes. “You don’t necessarily want to
put your emotion into every stroke,” he says. “The emotion belongs to the piece
as a whole.”

He has found a way to “draw with heat”, often burning holes in a painting
with a blowtorch. By putting several such sheets together, Jane mimics the
effect of looking at the scanned slices of his brain. Behind one layer of tissue
lies another. He turns the canvases as he works, forcing the wax to run in all
directions, creating images that echo the destruction of his own brain. “Looking
at the scans,” he says, “it’s clear my disease wasn’t very interested in
gravity. It moved freely in three dimensions. The damaged shape has a weightless
quality.”

In cultural terms, Jane sees his brand of portraiture, with its scientific
foundations, as a completely natural part of a continuing tradition. “I don’t
think there’s a clear distinction between art and science,” he says. “They
change at the same time.” This progressive partnership has been in evidence
since at least the 16th century, he says. He speaks with authority, although it
is a curious consequence of his condition that he cannot give the names of the
artists who would prove his point. Those memories are no longer there.

But he remains undeterred. His latest venture is also his most ambitious: a
collaborative exhibition with his neurologist, Michael Kopelman of St Thomas’
Hospital in London. Kopelman, together with Alan Colchester’s image-processing
team at the University of Kent in Canterbury, has taken a new series of scans of
Jane’s brain and created three-dimensional images of it. Jane intends to enlarge
these pictures to about 2 metres square and then work wax, pigment oil, charcoal
and other materials into the images to enhance their 3D appearance. Then he will
overlay pages of text taken from reports by doctors, critics and scientific
commentators, so the pictures become a palimpsest of experience and
interpretation.

“We can meld science and art together,” says Jane. “And we’ll do that not to
obscure what’s going on, or prettify it, but to make it clear. Dr Kopelman and I
want to open the doors of understanding into the scientific interpretation and
artistic vision of brain scan images, so that people can see them as things of
beauty as well as knowledge.”

For many critics, however, Jane’s work far exceeds these stated ambitions.
“When you look at David Jane’s work,” says Denna Jones, curator at the
London-based Wellcome Centre for Medical Science, “your reactions aren’t
anything to do with disease. It’s not even to do with that interest in
body-mapping you see so much of these days. It’s simply a continuation of
self-portraiture—part of a tradition five centuries old.” If the
18th-century painter William Hogarth had had access to the technology Jane uses,
“he’d probably have done the same thing”, says Jones.

Jane doesn’t disagree. “I was always considered an abstract artist and I
never felt happy with that,” he reflects. “I certainly can’t be called
`abstract’ now, at any rate. You can’t get more visceral than to paint your own
brain.”