- June 3, 2000 - March 15, 2001
The art in Unnatural Science exploited scientific narratives, practices, and aesthetics. Humorous and irreverent, though scientifically well-informed, these recent installations, sculptures, video works, and photographs owe much to the playful art of Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Jarry, and Raymond Roussel in their use of science as a springboard for fantasy. The artists’ explorations of botany, genetics, chemistry, physics, and other sciences are both poetic and profound, beautiful and visionary. Drawn from the collections of artists, galleries, and museums all over the world, the works that were included in Unnatural Science hail a significant trend in contemporary art — one that not only demystifies, but also poeticizes science.
Antoni’s Slumber is a performance/installation: whenever it was shown, the artist lived in the gallery, weaving during the day and sleeping with an EEG machine recording her rapid eye movement (REM) at night. REM is an analog to Antoni’s dreams, and she weaves this pattern into the blanket that covers her bed while she sleeps. In this piece, an uneasy truce exists between contemporary medical technology, ancient myths of weaving, and the mysterious world of dreams.
Chalmers raised and photographed a four-step food chain in her New York apartment. Caterpillars eat a tomato, then are eaten by a praying mantis, which has sex with—and then is eaten by—another praying mantis, which is then consumed by a frog. We may remember food chains like this described in junior high science class, but seeing each step — 5 feet across and in brilliant color — removed from any educational purpose is quite a different thing. Chalmers’ photographs in Unnatural Science documented these very normal, yet surreal, gruesome, and riveting encounters.
Peter Fischli + David Weiss
One of many collaborations between Peter Fischli and David Weiss, The Way Things Go is a film made in the artists’ studio. It follows a staged series of chain reactions relying on the fundamentals of physics, such as gravity and inertia, and using simple machines such as levers and inclined planes. Their goal was to make their chain reaction come as close to not working as possible. The result is both whimsical and excruciatingly suspenseful.
Grünfeld’s Misfits is a series begun in 1990 of fantastic animals produced through manipulations of taxidermy, and are so seamlessly prepared as to suggest that they were produced through advances in genetic engineering. The accuracy of the proportions and the familiar manner in which the Misfits are displayed ensure that they remain only slightly, but disturbingly, removed from reality. Grünfeld taps into the anxiety surrounding both the recent successful cloning of Dolly the sheep and the gruesome failure that H.G. Wells envisioned a century ago in The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Huang Yong Ping
The central element in The Pharmacy is a large wooden gourd that functions as a traveling Chinese pharmacy. Some of its contents are actual traditional Chinese pharmaceuticals, and others represent Western notions of what such a pharmacy might contain. A window on the sculpture’s broad end reveals shelves that are sparsely stocked with sausages, a big black pot and jars containing various colored powders. Other natural materials that might have some healing power are found on the floor beside the gourd, including dried lizards on sticks and insect egg carvings. Huang Yong Ping’s work shares a sensibility with Joseph Beuys, who engaged in similar cross-cultural collage.
Eve Andrée Laramée
Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions is an unusual sort of laboratory. Although much of the equipment looks standard, Laramée has altered some of the basic premises of science. Replacing concepts such as standard measures, certainty, precision, and analytical thought with idiosyncratic measures, chance, and feelings, Laramée draws analogies between chemical and emotional processes. Amidst a vast array of dysfunctional scientific apparatus, hand-blown irregular beakers — some containing saline solutions or flowers — are etched with words like “dither” and “matter of chance.” Laramée uses science to explore the subjective realms of poetry, absurdity, contradiction, and metaphor — realms normally considered the province of art.
In Seeing the Path of the Wind, eight fans were placed at cardinal points (north, northwest, west, etc.) and received information from a weather station installed on the roof of the gallery. The fans replicated the path and strength of the wind over a field of 1,200 organza flags. During storms the patterns that emerged were particularly beautiful — the flags resembled a large school of tropical fish changing direction all at once. This piece was different from most in the exhibition in its use of “real” science: by watching the piece over time, one could learn much about the wind currents in this area.
For Room of the Host, two hundred creatures cast in silicone and suspended in translucent oil were trapped within illuminated glass jars suspended from the ceiling of a darkened room. Although many were purposefully ugly, the complete environment was eerily beautiful and haunting. Each creature whirred around in its liquid light-filled medium emitting chirps and snippets of song. When any individual jar was approached, the creature inside clammed up and stopped moving, seemingly in fright, and became a dead, sterile “specimen.”
Researching the collection of the Fleming Museum, Oatman discovered that its first director Henry Perkins was a eugenicist. Eugenics was the “science” of racial purity — actually a totally irrational hodgepodge of racism, ignorance, and anxiety. This installation was a fictitious recreation of Perkins’ office, with many of the disturbing artifacts he collected combined with video and other work made by Oatman. His project went to the heart of political challenges to science’s claims to objectivity: science has always been shaped by the biases and prejudices of the people who create it.
Ritchie’s large, complex drawings are diagrammatic illustrations for an intricately wrought narrative about the big bang and the origins of the universe. In this story, which Ritchie had been pursuing in paintings, sculptures, drawings, and other art forms for several years at the time of the exhibition, each player in the creation of the cosmos took on an individual personality. Stacked and The Fast Set both depicted the big bang, but from different vantage points and moments in time. Ritchie’s continuing project represented a tireless effort to unravel all of the governing theories behind the existence of our universe, all the while in full cognizance of the absurdity of such a pursuit.
Schneider takes a poetic and highly personal approach to the Human Genome Project, using medical imaging technology to photograph his entire physical makeup, including his DNA, his chromosomes, his retinas, his hands, and his sperm. In printing these images as gelatin silver and platinum prints, he transformed the cold facts gathered in a lab into a warm, sensual interpretation. The result was neither a narcissistic presentation of Schneider’s superior genes, nor an uninflected marshaling of evidence about him; Schneider’s Genetic Self-Portrait was both highly personal and nearly universal, and quite possibly the most accurate self-portrait an artist could create today.
On a large, circular field of dark blue paper, Smith places frosted glass stars and large glass animals representing constellations, as well as bronze animal scat scattered throughout the sky. The science that Smith invoked differs from that in the other works in the exhibition: it was state-of-the-art astronomy 2,000 years ago. Constellation was a poetic, even romantic map, with some subjective inflections. The position of the stars in the sky is one of the few topics that have enchanted scientists and artists equally over several centuries.
Borealis is a dramatic portrait of the geodynamics of Vasulka’s native Iceland. The sounds and images that compose this piece were recorded in the Icelandic landscape. The viewer walks among four double-sided projections created with mirrors that reflect and multiply the image emitted from two projectors. Roiling, churning waves and fecund, dewy plants appeared in close-up shots. Electronic manipulation of familiar natural formations, combined with various sound effects, produces a disorienting, uncomfortable view of nature.
Catherine Chalmers, Food Chain, 1994-1996