THE NEW ALCHEMISTS THE WORD ‘ALCHEMIST’ CONJURES UP IMAGES OF MYSTICISM AND ANCIENT EXPERIMENTS, PARTICULARLY THE QUEST FOR THE MYTHICAL PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, WHICH HAS THE ABILITY TO TRANSMUTE BASE METALS INTO GOLD AND PRODUCE THE ELIXIR OF ETERNAL LIFE. IT’S A LOADED TERM, AND ONE NOWADAYS MORE ASSOCIATED WITH FANTASY, SPIRITUALITY AND EVEN CHARLATANISM, THAN HARD SCIENCE.
These connotations make The New Alchemists an odd name for an exhibition promising “investigative” art that “ruptures borders and barriers of art and science.” Curator Alicia King expresses her interest in ‘the social impact of technology’, and the works definitely explore elements of the relationship between humans and science/technology; however, there’s an awkward contradiction between the exhibition title, the supporting catalogue essays and the artworks. The works tend towards a speculative, poetic, and/or aestheticized representation of science and medicine, which is not problematic in itself, but the essays suggest that the exhibition is aiming for something more. Rosemary Miller even goes so far as to speculate, “are artists’ investigations and fictions directing science?” While the artworks in this exhibition are interesting and entertaining, to suggest that Ian Haig’s large lump of faux flesh and bone, for instance, is influencing science seems ambitious to the extreme. Half the artworks in New Alchemists seem to be collaborations with nature, using animals, weather or celestial movement to explore the relationship between humans and nature. My favourite work in the exhibition is Thomas Thwaites’ documentation of his attempt to ‘become a goat’, which is represented in the gallery through video, a series of images, and a prototype prosthesis. His well-known and undeniably hilarious project involved the British artist visiting shamans, undergoing brain stimulation in order to interrupt the speech pathways of his brain, and creating ‘goat leg’ prostheses that allowed him to eat grass on all fours alongside a herd of goats in the Swiss Alps. Art Orienté Objet’s video is also a representation of a past project: a performance from 2011 in which horse blood was injected into one of the collaborating artists, Marion Laval-
Jeantet, in what the artists call a ‘ceremony of blood-brotherhood’. Like Thwaites, LavalJeantet dons hoof-like prostheses, raising her height to that of the horse’s head. The premise is equally as absurd as Thwaites’, but it lacks the tongue-in-cheek humour and genuine charm that has made Thwaites’ project so popular in the media and online. Nadege Philippe-Janon’s Jerry on the Katabatic Wind is mesmerising. The artist is known for her miniature environments made with everyday objects onto which corresponding images are projected. Patterned light bounces off strategically placed mirrors and glass onto the ceiling, walls and visitors, highlighting small objects tucked into the high wooden beams or clustered in the darkened corners. Her New Alchemists installation differs from previous similar works in that the projections are directed by the weather thanks to an external weather monitor. In addition to this active collaboration with nature, the projected images themselves are akin to metrological or biological events and objects. A fast-moving white on blue dot pattern is beamed onto a series of small upright concrete blocks, suggestive of clouds sweeping over a cluster of skyscrapers. It’s a magical environment and one that I almost missed due to its location behind a closed door in an adjoining gallery space. Michaela Gleave’s dot matrix printer, The World Arrives at Night (Star Printer), could also be considered a collaboration with our environment. While Philippe-Janon’s work responds to the earth’s climate, Gleave’s responds to objects beyond our planet, recording live data relating to stars as they rise above the earth’s horizon. Although the dot matrix printer and text looks archaic and utilitarian, the aesthetics are not unlike that of the equipment I observed recently
at Tasmania’s Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory open day. The research conducted at the University of Tasmania-owed institution is cutting edge, but to the casual visitor the equipment looks like it belongs in a museum. Gleave’s work captures this contradiction by using the aesthetic language of utilitarian technology to convey complex live data. Unlike most of the other works in the exhibition, Oron Catt, Ionat Zurr and Corrie van Sice’s work looks like what I usually associate with bio art. Four bags of liquid hang above a series of petri dishes and (what I later discover is) a 3D printer. Dramatically lit and sitting atop a white plinth, it’s almost a fetishized representation of science and medicine – something I also sensed in Art Orienté Objet’s work. At this point I have to confess that I rarely read artist statements unless I’m reviewing a show. I loathe them. If a work is interesting and I want to know a bit more I’ll sometimes brave the accompanying text, but an artwork should surely be able to be appreciated on some level without the ‘crutch’ of an artist statement. Unfortunately, the statement for The Mechanism of Life-after Stephane Leduc is not only a crutch, but a wordy, jargon-filled and impenetrable one. Even if I wanted to know more, there’s not much I can glean. It’s evident that the curator, Alicia King, has a broad engagement with and knowledge of socioscientific art, and consequently the majority of the works in New Alchemists are individually engaging and enjoyable. There’s also a strong element of humour and play common to many of the artworks. The works all loosely explore the relationship between humans, technology and nature, but the exhibition seems to want to encompass the entire spectrum of scientific subdisciplines - from neuroscience and behavioural science to astronomy and meteorology - at the expense of a more coherent, probing focus. LUCY HAWTHORNE Curator: Dr Alicia King. Artists: Art Orienté Objet (France); Michaela Gleave (Australia); Ian Haig (Australia); Oron Catts & Ionat Zurr (Australia) in collaboration with Corrie van Sice (USA); Nadege Philippe-Janon (Australia); Thomas Thwaites (UK) and Lu Yang (China). Exhibition dates: 23 July – 28 August 2016 Exhibition venue: Long Gallery, Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, Tasmania
1. Ian Haig, Some Thing, 2011. Animatronic sculpture 2. Art Oriente Objet, May the Horse Live in me, 2011. Video still 3. Thomas Thwaites, I, Goat, 2015. Sculptural armature, photographic prints