Unseen, Amsterdam: Blanket coverage

When Records Melt at Unseen Amsterdam, discussed in New Scientist, 20 September 2018

Visit the Rhône Glacier in southern Switzerland, and you are more than likely to wander past a small shop. It’s worth a visit: the owners have carved out an ice grotto, and charge tourists for the eerie and beautiful experience of exploring the inside of their glacier’s mass of blue ice.

Now, though, it’s melting. The grotto is such an important part of their livelihood, some years ago the owners invested 100,000 euros in a special thermal blanket. “It’s kept about 25 metres’ depth of ice from disappearing and has kept the grotto in business,” explains the photographer Simon Norfolk. But a few winters on the mountain have left the blanket in tatters.

“It’s the gesture that fascinates me,” says Norfolk. “There is something insane about trying to reverse the inevitable – a gesture as forlorn and doomed as the glacier itself.”

Norfolk and fellow photographer Klaus Thymann climbed up to the grotto just before dawn, armed with a light attached to a helium balloon that cast a sepulchral light over the scene. “I wanted to recreate the same light you get over a mortuary slab,” Norfolk says.

Emilia van Lynden, artistic director of Unseen Amsterdam, finds the effect as aesthetically chilling as it is beautiful. Of the whole series, called Shroud, she observes: “We’re seeing a glacier being wrapped and prepared for death.”

“There’s next to no photo-journalism here,” van Lynden explains. “None of the images here expect you to take them at face value. They expect you to pay attention and figure things out for yourself. These are works into which you need to invest a little bit of time and effort, to see what the artist is trying to tell you.”

On the face of it, then, the presence at Unseen of Project Pressure, Norfolk and Thymann’s campaigning environmental charity, seems odd. The whole point of the outfit, which has collaborated with the likes of NASA and the World Glacier Monitoring Service, is not just to get us to think about climate change, but to do something positive about it.

But art photography, Norfolk and Thymann believe, is a more effective communication tool than straightforward photo-journalism.

Their point is eloquently made by this 24 hour time-lapse video, created with a thermal imaging camera. By revealing the heat-properties of the scene, Norfolk and Thymann underline the different temperatures in the ice-body versus the surrounding landscape – a key indicator of climate change.

“I believe artists often make the best social and environmental investigators,” says van Lynden. “The trouble with ‘straight’ photography is it looks for stunning subjects and leaves you, well, stunned by them. Glaciers are magnificent in their natural form even as they’re melting away.”

The series exhibited in Project Pressure’s show When Records Melt take a different approach.

Among van Lynden’s favourite works are photographs by Christopher Parsons, who is better known for photographic portraits of explorers and sports personalities. Parsons won Project Pressure’s open call, and was invited on an expedition to the Himalayas. He collaborated with scientists studying alterations in the microbial life around retreating glaciers, and his photographs, while full of dread, are also accurate records of how changing weather patterns are altering the course of life in these fragile environments.

Lhotse at sundown, Nepal

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin also take an apparently left-field approach to glacier retreat that nonetheless packs a powerful emotional punch. “Their work is literally a huge photograph of a bone that was found within the Rhône glacier,” says van Lynden. “They’re looking at the glacier as a living archive that now is slowly unravelling. All this information, all this stored data, which has been locked in the ice for however many thousands of years, is being lost.”

She is in no doubt that Project Pressure’s message is clear. If you’re not convinced by one series of photographs, says van Lynden, “then you have six other projects that showcase, each in its individual manner, the irreparable damage we have done to our planet.”

Spellbound at the Ashmolean: Sensible magic

The world is big and it doesn’t come pre-labelled. We need to enchant the world in order to manoeuvre through it. For every daft superstition we pick up along the way, we acquire a hundred, a thousand meanings that do make sense, and without which we simply could not function.

To explain magical thinking from first principles is hard. To do so with exhibits is a real challenge…

Visiting Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean for the Financial Times, 3 September 2018

Surreal Science at the Whitechapel: Object lessons

Visiting Surreal Science at London’s Whitechapel Gallery for New Scientist, 8 September 2018

WHENEVER the artist Salvatore Arancio visits a new city, he heads for the nearest natural history museum. He goes partly for research: his eclectic output, spanning photography and ceramics, explores how we categorise and try to understand natural and geological processes.

In the main, though, Arancio wants to be overwhelmed. “A lot of these collections are so vast, after a while you find yourself wandering around in a spaced-out state, inventing mental landscapes and narratives. It’s that feeling I’m trying to evoke here,” he tells me as we watch the assembly of his new show, Surreal Science, a collaboration with art patron George Loudon.

Loudon famously collected work by Damien Hirst and his generation years before they became global celebrities – until the day a canvas he bought wouldn’t fit through his door.

At that point, Loudon turned to the books, images and models (in clay, felt, glass and plaster) that educated 19th-century science students. “Looking back, I can see the move was a natural one,” Loudon says. “Artists like Hirst and Mark Dion were exploring the way we catalogue and represent the world. Around the time that collection felt complete I was travelling to South America a lot, and I became interested in the scientific discoveries made there – by Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates.”

This isn’t a collection in the sense that there is any demarcation to it. “It’s somebody’s personal eye that chooses this over that,” says Loudon. Nevertheless, a clear theme has emerged: how the explosion of science in the 19th century meant that scientists had to turn artist to produce educational materials for students. And, when the burden became too much, how companies of artisans emerged to satisfy the demand.

Loudon’s collection has been shown before, at the Manchester Museum last year, but Surreal Science is a different enterprise. The objects, designed to be handled, are exhibited here on open shelves, bringing the visitor tantalisingly close to the work in a very un-museumlike manner. Needless to say this makes for a nerve-racking build.

This is the moment of truth for Arancio, who had to plan this installation-cum-exhibition armed only with photographs of Loudon’s collection and sheets of careful measurements. It is the first chance he has had to see his arrangements realised in situ.

The ceramic pieces he has created provide a foil for the items in Loudon’s collection. An arrangement of ceramic flowers above an anatomical cut-away torso suggests a mandrake-like marriage of vegetable and human. Next to it is a discomforting juxtaposition of plaster models of teeth and wax copies of lemons. Models of cell division are easily mistaken for geodes. Again and again, Arancio’s ceramic pieces – pools, leaves, corals and tubular spider forms – mislead the eye, so we miscatalogue what we see.

“I tried to create pieces that carried George’s objects off into some kind of fantastic realm,” says Arancio. Even before key elements of the show are installed –proper lighting, a looping educational film from 1935 and an experimental soundtrack by The Focus Group – it is clear that the experiment has succeeded.

For Loudon, it is a vindication of his decision to collect objects that until recently weren’t recognised by the fine-art market. He moves from shelf to shelf, past exquisite Blaschka glass slugs, felt fungi, a meticulously repaired elephant bird egg. “Now these objects have lost their original purpose, we can look at them as objects of beauty,” he says. “I’m not claiming that this is art forever. I am saying it is art for today.”

Life in the dark

Going to the dark side at London’s Natural History Museum for New Scientist, 13 July 2018:

At some point in the last couple of years, someone at London’s Natural history Museum must have decided that it should get beautiful. In 2016 Colour and Vision set a high bar; Life in the Dark shows just how far they have come.

Parts of Life in the Dark are designed by the Jason Bruges studio, which is better known for huge, open-ended generative artworks like the digital crowd massing along a 145-metre wall at Sunderland’s railway station, and the liquid-crystal digital waterfall at Westfield Shopping Centre which, years ahead of the competition, proved that bytes, set free with the right algorithms, could be just as unpredictable and fascinating as actual water droplets.

Their work here at the museum is at a more modest scale, but unobtrusive it most certainly is not. There’s a room hung with card mobiles and a complex lighting track that fills with phantom bats as you walk through it, like a sort of 3D flickerbook.

The final room of the show is lit by bioluminescent denizens of the deep ocean – or at least, their digital avatars. Hung from a false ceiling above the visitors, Jason Bruges’s complex three-dimensional, 3000-point display accurately reflects the behaviour and movement of more than half a dozen species. Naturally, there’s been some poetic licence with the light-show’s strength and density.

It’s a moot point whether visitors will appreciate the careful research that’s gone into all those different blues dangling and flashing above their heads, or whether indeed anyone will notice that the animated badger and hedgehog are programmed not to approach each other on the video wall that greets you when you enter the exhibition. The journey as a whole is what matters, as the show’s curators lead us from English woods at sunset, through caves of ever-increasing depth and strangeness, into the deep ocean where suddenly everything and anything seems biologically possible, and not always in a good way.

Life in the Dark is an extraordinarily powerful (not to say downright creepy) exercise in letting go of everything you thought was normal in nature. The possum-like aye-aye’s needle-like middle finger, tapping for grubs under the bark of night-time trees, is bad enough, and it comes as no comfort to read that “If you go into a cave in Central America, you will likely see huge mounds of guano (bat poo) covered with feasting cockroaches.”

One inadvertent effect of this show was to confirm me in my lifelong aversion to caves. Given enough time, everything that lives in them evolves to go blind. Everything shrinks. Everything bleaches itself out – except for the African dwarf crocodiles who, thanks to the guano diet of their prey, turn a sickly orange. On learning that giant centipedes, Scolopendra gigantea, hang from cave walls to pounce on passing bats, I high-tailed it to the section about the deep ocean, and where, oddly for an environment that is mostly lightless, virtually no animal is blind.

Animals that inhabit the middle ranges of the water column use bioluminescence for camouflage, matching their self-made light to the dwindling intensity of downwelling sunlight. The eyes of the spookfish Opisthoproctussp point upwards to detect prey, while mirror-like structures in its belly reflect the bioluminescence produced there, breaking up its silhouette from below.

Lower still, brittle stars, Ophiomusium lymani, flash brightly to temporarily blind predators, while others produce a gently glowing mucus to signal their toxicity. The Atolla jellyfish, confronting a predator, uses a swirling “burglar alarm” display to attract even bigger predators, triggering the deep-sea equivalent of a bar-room brawl, through which it makes an unobtrusive exit.

New nocturnal species are turning up all the time, only 5 per cent of the world’s oceans have been explored, and there are bound to be cave ecosystems still awaiting discovery. It’s appropriate, then, as well as interesting, to learn something about the researchers who’ve contributed to this show. Who knows, the unobtrusive videos in this show may inspire a new generation of researchers.

They’ll have to be a lot less squeamish than I am, though.

M C Escher: “Indulging in imaginary thoughts”

Beating piteously at the windows for New Scientist, 25 May 2018

Leeuwarden-Fryslan, one of the less populated parts of the Netherlands, has been designated this year’s European Capital of Culture. It’s a hub of social and technological and cultural innovation and yet hardly anyone has heard of the place. It makes batteries that the makers claim run circles around Tesla’s current technology, there are advanced plans for the region to go fossil free by 2025, it has one of the highest (and happiest) immigrant populations in Europe, and yet all we can see from the minibus, from horizon to horizon, is cows.

When you’re invited to write about an area you know nothing about, a good place to start is the heritage. But even that can’t help us here. The tiny city of Leeuwarden boasts three hugely famous children: spy and exotic dancer Mata Hari, astrophysicist Jan Hendrik Oort (he of the Oort Cloud) and puzzle-minded artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. The trouble is, all three are famous for being maddening eccentrics.

All Leeuwarden’s poor publicists can do then, having brought us here, is throw everything at us and hope something sticks. And so it happens that, somewhere between the (world-leading) Princessehof ceramics museum and Lan Fan Taal, a permanent pavilion celebrating world languages, someone somewhere makes a small logistical error and locks me inside an M C Escher exhibition.

Escher, who died in 1972, is famous for using mathematical ideas in his art, drawing on concepts from symmetry and hyperbolic geometry to create complex tessellated images. And the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden has gathered more than 80 original prints for me to explore, along with drawings, photographs and memorabilia, so there is no possibility of my getting bored.

Nor is the current exhibition, Escher’s Journey, the usual, chilly celebration of the man’s puzzle-making ability and mathematical sixth sense. Escher was a pleasant, passionate man with a taste for travel, and this show reveals how his personal experiences shaped his art.

Escher’s childhood was by his own account a happy one. His parents took a good deal of interest in his education without ever restricting his intellectual freedom. This was as well, since he was useless at school. Towards the end of his studies, he and his parents traveled through France to Italy, and in Florence he wrote to a friend: “I wallow in it, but so greedily that I fear that my stomach will not be able to withstand it.”

The cultural feast afforded by the city was the least of it. The Leeuwarden native was equally staggered by the surrounding hills – the sheer, three-dimensional fact of them; the rocky coasts and craggy defiles; the huddled mountain villages with squares, towers and houses with sloping roofs. Escher’s love of the Italian landscape consumed him and, much to his mother’s dismay, he was soon permanently settled in the country.

For visitors familiar to the point of satiety and beyond with Escher’s endlessly reproduced and commodified architectural puzzles and animal tessellations, the sketches he made in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s are the highlight of this show. Escher’s favored medium was the engraving. It’s a time-consuming art, and one that affords the artist time to think and to tinker. Inevitably, Escher began merging his sketches into new, realistic wholes. Soon he was trying out unusual perspectives and image compilations. In Still Life with Mirror (1934), he crossed the threshold, creating a reflected world that proves on close inspection to be physically and mathematically impossible.

The usual charge against Escher as an artist – that he was too caught up in the toils of his own visual imagination to express much humanity – is hard to rebuff. There’s a gap here it’s not so easy to bridge: between Escher the approachable and warm-hearted family man and Escher the grumpy Parnassian (he once sent Mick Jagger away with a flea in his ear for asking him for an album cover).

The second world war had a lot to answer for, of course, not least because it drove Escher out of his beloved Italian hills and back, via Switzerland, to the flat old, dull old Netherlands. “Italy, the landscape, the people, they speak to me.” he explained in 1968. “Switzerland doesn’t and Holland even less so.”

Without the landscape to inform his art, other influences came to dominate. Among the places he had visited as war gathered was the Alhambra in Granada. The complex geometric patterns covering its every surface, and their timeless, endless repetition, fascinated him. For days on end he copied the Arab motifs in the palace. Back in the Netherlands, their influence, and Escher’s growing fascination with the mathematics of tessellation, would draw him away from landscapes toward an art consisting entirely of “visualised thoughts”.

By the time his images were based on periodic tilings (meaning that you can slide a pattern in a certain direction and have it exactly overlay the original), his commentaries suggest that Escher had come to embrace his own, somewhat sterile reputation. “I played a game,” he recalled, “indulged in imaginary thoughts, with no other intention than to explore the possibilities of representation. In my work I give a report on these discoveries.”

In the end Escher’s designs became so fiendishly complex, his output dropped almost to zero, and much of his time was taken up lecturing and corresponding about his unique way of working. He corresponded with mathematicians, though he never considered himself one. He knew Roger Penrose. He lived to see the first fractal shapes evolve out of the mathematical studies of Koch and Mandelbrot, though it wasn’t until after his death that Benoît Mandelbrot coined the word “fractal” and popularised the concept.

Eventually, I am missed. At any rate, someone thinks to open the gallery door. I don’t know how long I was in there, locked in close proximity to my childhood hero. (Yes, as a child I did those jigsaw puzzles; yes, as a student I had those posters on my wall) I can’t have been left inside Escher’s Journey for more than a few minutes. But I exited a wreck.

The Fries Museum has lit Escher’s works using some very subtle and precise spot projection; this and the trompe-l’œil monochrome paintwork on the walls of the gallery form a modestly Escherine puzzle all by themselves. Purely from the perspective of exhibition design, this charming, illuminating, and comprehensive show is well worth a visit.

You wouldn’t want to live there, though.

The inside story of blood

Visiting the Royal College of Physicians for New Scientist, 17 February 2018

AFFECTION and delight aren’t qualities you would immediately associate with an exhibition about blood flow. But Ceaseless Motion reaches beyond the science to celebrate the man – 17th-century physician William Harvey – who, the story goes, invented the tradition of doctors’ bad handwriting. He was also a benefactor: when founding a lecture series in his own name, he remembered to bequeath money for the provision of refreshments.

It is an exhibition conceived, organised and hosted by the UK’s Royal College of Physicians, whose 17th-century librarian Christopher Merrett described how to make champagne several years before the monk Dom Pérignon began his experiments. Less happily, Merrett went on a drinking binge in 1666, and let Harvey’s huge book collection burn in London’s Great Fire.

The documents, seals and signatures that survived the flames despite Merrett’s neglect take pride of place in an exhibition that, within a very little compass, tells the story of one of medicine’s more important revolutionaries through documents, portraits and some deceptively chatty wall information.

Before Harvey’s 10 years of intense, solitary study bore fruit, physicians thought blood was manufactured in the liver and then passed through the body under its own volumetric pressure. Heaven help you if you made too much of the stuff. Luckily, physicians were on hand to release this disease-inducing pressure through bloodletting.

It sounds daft now, but clues back then that something quite different was going on were sparse and controversial. The 16th-century physician Andreas Vesalius had puzzled over the heart. If, like every other organ, it fed on blood produced in the liver, why were its walls so impenetrably hard? But even this towering figure, the founder of modern anatomy, decided that his own observations had to be wrong.

It was Hieronymus Fabricius, Harvey’s teacher in Padua, Italy, who offered a new and fruitful tack when he mapped “the little doors in the veins” that, we know now, are valves maintaining the flow of blood back to the lungs.

Within 30 years, Harvey’s realisation that blood pressure is controlled by the heart, and that this organ actively pumps blood around the body in a continuous circuit, had overturned the teachings of the 2nd-century Graeco-Roman physician Claudius Galen in European centres of learning. The new thinking also put close clinical observation at the heart of a discipline that had traditionally spent more time on textual analysis than on examining patients.

The exhibition is housed in a building designed by Denys Lasdun. This celebrated modernist architect was so taken by Harvey’s achievements that he designed the interiors as a subtle homage to the human circulatory system.

With the royal college now celebrating its 500th birthday, its institutional pride is palpable, but never stuffy. As one staff member told me, “We only started talking about ourselves as a ‘Royal’ college after the Restoration, to suck up to the king.”

Those who can visit should be brave and explore. Upstairs, there are wooden panels from Padua with the dried and salted circulatory and nervous systems of executed criminals lacquered into them. They are rare survivors: when pickling methods improved and it was possible to provide medical students with three-dimensional teaching aids, such “anatomical plates” were discarded.

Downstairs, there are endless curiosities. The long sticks doctors carried in 18th-century caricatures were clinical instruments – latex gloves didn’t arrive until 1889. The sticks’ silver ferrules contained miasma-defeating herbs and, sometimes, phials of alcohol. None of them are as handsome as Harvey’s own demonstration rod.

But if a visit in person is out of the question, take a look at the royal college’s new website, launched to celebrate half a millennium of institutional conviviality and controversy. You will have to provide your own biscuits, though.

 

The sooner we pave over this lot, the better

Venom: Killer and cure ran at London’s Natural History Museum to 13 May 2018…

Londoners! This holiday season, why not take the children along to the Natural History Museum? Its new exhibition Venom: Killer and cure brims over with fascinating and entertaining stories.

Have you heard about the emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa), which zombifies its cockroach prey with its sting before laying an egg on it that hatches into a larva that eats the cockroach alive while knowing, somehow, to leave its vital organs till last?

Too strong? Then how about the paralysis-inducing bites of the marine bloodworm (Glycera dibranchiata), whose copper-reinforced teeth are one of the toughest known structures in the natural world?

Oh, dear. There must be something child-friendly round here… How about the deer fly (Chrysops sp.)? The males feed exclusively on nectar! Unfortunately, the females feed exclusively on blood and have evolved an anticoagulant venom to keep their meals flowing.

Nods to some ingenious medicine aside, Venom seems hell-bent on convincing visitors that “nature” is a state of perpetual, terrible and gruesome conflict, and that – if your environmental competitors have their way – your whole lived experience is going to be filled with excruciating pain.

Those with strong enough stomachs will marvel at the ingenuity of nature’s torturers. Even the Iberian ribbed newt (Pleurodeles waltl), which hardly sounds the fiercest animal in the pantheon, has ribs which burst out through its poisonous skin to deter predators.

Those of a philosophic bent will appreciate the show’s underlying narrative, explaining how human cunning makes us the most efficient, though by no means the only, harvester of venom. There’s a sea swallow (Glaucus atlanticus) here, in the form of an extraordinarily delicate and beautiful glass model made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. This pretty sea slug, about 2.5-centimetres long, eats Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia physalis) and collects their venom in its own tentacles, which it fires at predators to defend itself.

The fine-art crowd will thrill to artist Steve Ludwin’s 30-year project of no certain purpose: injecting himself with snake venom. Those of a literary bent, meanwhile, will savour the elegant phrasing of Justin Schmidt’s sting pain scale. Of the Western yellow jacket wasp (Vespula pensylvanica) he writes: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”

Venom shows London’s Natural History Museum at its best: the exhibition is intimate, but not claustrophobic; unafraid of detail, but eminently accessible; visually arresting, but not exhausting.

I left trembling, angry and depressed. Had the show let me down? Quite the contrary: if anything, it had over-delivered.

How long, I wondered, must we put up with this ghastly horror-show world of ours? Why should we have to tolerate the way competing slow lorises (Nycticebus sp.) inflict festering wounds on each other, and male emperor scorpions (Pandinus imperator) feel the need to sting their females before they dare broach the subject of sex?

Venom has convinced me that nature is vile. It is pitiless and disgusting, and the sooner we pave over it the better.

The boring beasts that changed the world

Visiting the Museum of Ordinary Animals exhibition for New Scientist, 4 November 2017

SOME animals are so familiar, we barely see them. If we think of them at all, we categorise them according to their role in our lives: as pests or food; as unthinking labourers or toy versions of ourselves. If we looked at them as animals – non-human companions riding with us on our single Earth – what would we make of them? Have we raised loyal subjects, or hapless victims, or monsters?

This is the problem that The Museum of Ordinary Animals sets out to address. This show has been artfully, but still none-too-easily, stuffed into the already famously crammed setting of the Grant Museum, a 19th-century teaching collection packed full of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in fluid.

The exhibition, a sign announces, “begins in front of you, behind the dugong”. The corridor between cases is narrow. Easing past visitors distracted by a glass case of dolphin heads, I shave past the enormous, grinning skull of a saltwater crocodile. Here, as in our imagination, the ordinary animals tend to get squeezed out by the extraordinary ones.

The exhibition is small, so go around twice. Spend the first time reading. There is an art to visitor information and the show’s curators have nailed it here, citing just the right oddities and asking just the right questions to tip the viewer into a state of uncertain wonder.

This show, about animals that are useful to humanity, also turns out to be a show about how dangerously peculiar humanity is. The world has been shaped by our numbers, our intelligence and our activity. For example, all pet golden hamsters descend from a single female fetched from Syria in 1930. It was in a group meant for the lab until it was won in a bet.

And the settling of Europeans in Australia from 1788 triggered the fastest catastrophic species loss we know of. Our cats did most of the work, invading more than 99.8 per cent of the Australian land mass. Today, feral cats kill tens of millions of native animals in Australia every night.

The world has been shaped by our beliefs, too. In Europe, it was once common to bury people with their companion animals. Christianity saw off that practice in the late 7th century, because the faith denies that animals have souls. Then, around a thousand years ago, Benedictine dietary rules were formulated. At that time, chickens were feral, quarrelsome and didn’t lay anything like as many eggs as they do now. Today, the chicken is a more or less mindless and sedentary protein factory.

Having learned that humanity isn’t so much a species, more a narrow and superbly weaponised ecosystem, the visitor is ready for a second go. Now the exhibits resonate wonderfully: the bones, the pictures, the jars. Is the subject of Cornelis de Visscher’s mid-17th-century engraving The Rat-Catcher, the catcher himself or the rat in his cage? There are mice used in diabetes research, ironed flat at death and mounted on cards like obscene tombstones. Nearby, a mummified cat head possesses extraordinary innate dignity: no wonder the animal was a focus of worship.

Leaving Ordinary Animals and the museum, I found myself standing under an orange sky, courtesy of Hurricane Ophelia, which had recently brought ash and dust from runaway forest fires to smother Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Under that dead light, humans gawped at a red sun while, across the road from me, a pet dog, brought to heel, yawned, as though to say: who cares about the sky? Master will feed us. Mistress knows best.

But the exhibition had thrown me out of my complacency, and rarely have I felt less easy with the human project.

Bloody marvellous

Visiting the exhibition Blood: Life Uncut at Copeland Gallery, London, for New Scientist, 20 October 2017

It caused a storm on social media when it was first shown in 2013, but Dan Glaser, director of Science Gallery London, has a deep and obvious affection for Casting Off My Womb, a scarf knitted over the course of a month by Australian artist Casey Jenkins using spools of yarn stored daily in her vagina. The scarf hangs across the gallery hosting Blood: Life uncut as a visceral and compellingly complex record of one woman’s menstrual cycle. “How else could you ever present that much data?” Glaser enthuses.

“Data” is one of Glaser’s watchwords. So is “visualisation”. He claims not to know much about art. It’s a pose, of course, but a useful one. After 15 years as a research neurologist, Glaser has reinvented himself as an impresario of science communication. His approach is bold: to wrest the gallery space off the art world and apply it to his own, very different ends.

This is the latest in a series of small, off-site exhibitions, and it’s in an out-of-the-way former industrial space in Peckham, south London, because the actual Science Gallery London building won’t be ready until next year.

Everything on show is meant to illustrate medical and scientific ideas. This is why they are here: they are only coincidentally works of performance art, or conceptual art, or what have you.

Normally, this approach encourages dull, derivative work. And if Glaser and his colleagues were as naive as they like to make out, that’s no doubt what we would have got. But the works here, including many new commissions, are often beautiful, and always visually arresting.

Inspired by research into sickle cell anaemia conducted at King’s College London (the gallery’s owner), Glaser and the show’s curator, Andy Franzkowiak, have assembled an exhibition that can be read both for its beauty and for its scientific pertinence.

Given the show quite literally drips with the red stuff, it is still capable of surprising subtlety. Turn from the mechanical behemoth perfusing a bucket’s worth of pigs’ blood in Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor’s installation The Body is a Big Place, and you confront a video filmed in the waters of a municipal swimming pool.

Those people clinging to the sides are organ donors, potential recipients and their families. They are each of them out of their depth in an alien environment, seen through a medium and at an angle that makes identities impossible to establish. If you want an image of what it is like to be caught at the end of your tether in the toils of a necessarily complex and bureaucratic system – well, this video is surely it.

Some of the best pieces here are the most direct. In a riposte to the usual cock-and-balls graffiti found in public toilets, the Hotham Street Ladies have decorated the walls of the gallery’s gents with menstruating uteruses made of icing sugar and sweets.

And then there’s Tough Blood by film-maker Stephen Rudder and choreographer Skylitz, a dance conveying, with brutal beauty, the excruciatingly painful episodes suffered by people with sickle cell anaemia.

The show ends with Jordan Eagles’ installation Blood Equality: a room full of overhead projectors displaying acetates smothered in the dried blood of sexually active gay, bisexual and transgender people.

It’s a campaigning piece, made to highlight the UK and US blood services’ refusal to accept donations from this cohort on the same basis as other groups. The eye is drawn first to the acetate sheets themselves, and naturally enough – given the associations between spilt blood and violence and pain – it’s not a pretty sight. It might not be until you turn to leave the room that it dawns on you that this blood is being projected. The walls and ceiling and floor are covered with it: rich, crackled, stained and impossibly beautiful.

In a strong show, it’s hard to think of a work that better expresses the intent of this queasy, seductive exploration of “the essential, expressive and visceral nature of blood”.

Skin-shuddering intimacy

Visiting Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, National Maritime Museum, Falmouth for New Scientist, 1 July 2017

TURN left as you enter Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed, and you will be led through the history of a venerable and flourishing folk art. Turn right and you will confront a wall of 100 disembodied forearms. They aren’t real, which is a nuisance for the artists who tattooed them – since silicone is nothing like as easy to work with as human skin – but a comfort for the rest of us.

Alice Snape, editor of Things & Ink magazine, curated this wall to showcase the range of work by today’s tattoo artists in the UK. But you really need to see the rest of the exhibition first. You need time to contemplate the problem Snape’s 100 Hands is there to solve, that this is an exhibition whose subject is entitled to wander off, and cover up.

There’s something frustratingly arch about tattooing. Tattooists jealously guard their stencilled designs (called “flashes”) even as they create pieces that, by their very nature, come with their own sales reps. Clients (perhaps influenced by 2005’s reality show Miami Ink) wax lyrical on the deeply personal stories behind their tats, then plaster photos of them all over Instagram.

Practitioners exploit their liminal status even while they bemoan their lack of recognition. In a show full of repeating figures and useful (though never intrusive) signposting, my favourites were the boards that tell you “what the papers said” at different times in history. Every generation, it seems, has come to the same startling realisation that “tattoos aren’t just for sailors”, yet the information never seems to stick. Tattooing is an art that does not want to be fully known.

The problem facing the show’s curators is: how do you define the limits of your enquiry? If the art has to be invited in, cajoled, reassured, even flattered into taking part, how do you stop shaky inclusion criteria from compromising objectivity?

Natural history solved the problem long ago. The rule used to be that if you wanted to study something you went out and shot it: the rifle was as much part of your kit as your magnifying glass. The Maoris of Polynesia, aware of the value Western visitors put on souvenirs, used to catch people, tattoo their faces, decapitate them and sell their heads to collectors. The draughtsman aboard Charles Darwin’s ship the Beagle had a travel box lined with the tattooed skin of dead Maori warriors.

These days the tattooed collect themselves. Geoff Ostling, for one, has arranged for his heavily (and beautifully) tattooed skin to go to the National Gallery of Australia after he dies. Gemma Angel, an adviser to this exhibition, spent her doctoral study among the 300 or so items in the Wellcome Collection’s archive of human skin, and she reckons there’s a growing interest in post-mortem tattoo preservation.

It is to this exhibition’s great credit that it takes no time at all to find a voice pinpointing exactly what is so discomforting about this idea. In a cabinet of personal testimonies I find this remark by a Catherine Marston: “Tattoo is an art form but I don’t think they should be collected because when a person dies they die too. You hear of some really weird designers that use skin that’s cut afterwards, once they die then that goes on display. I think that diminishes the whole idea of a tattoo. It’s art with a time zone rather than timeless.”

Such voices are valuable here because even this democratic, eclectic exhibition can’t quite capture the shuddering intimacy of the form it celebrates. Tattoos are not just artworks, they are also performances. Getting a tattoo hurts just enough to make you dizzy, and lodges that intimate moment in your memory.

Though the art is the point of the show, it would not work nearly so well without the artefacts it has borrowed from working tattooists and from the Science Museum in London. People make tattoo guns out of virtually anything that vibrates. The first machines were made out of Victorian doorbells. You can salivate at images all you like, but nothing gets under the skin like a doorbell-based tattoo gun once wielded by Johnny Two-Thumbs of Hong Kong.