Getting Visceral At The Science Gallery – Whither The Place Of Art:Science

When I was last in Dublin I visited the Science Gallery for the opening of Visceral, a 10 year retrospective of ‘Symbiotica’ art:science work. You can watch a charming vignette of the exhibit below

It’s possibly been two years since I last set foot in the Science Gallery. Not a terrible amount has changed: it’s still one of my favourite places in Dublin in terms of the content they exhibit, but it is also still blighted by the presentation issues which I feel have dogged the space since they opened in 2008. If anything my frustration with the curation of science gallery events has only being compounded by attending the likes of Transmediale, AV Festival and through the arduous process of the MAIM Expo set up (which admittedly I played little part in but was granted a front row seat by virtue of collaborating with Lisa Baldini who set her excellent curatorial skills to work on the Expo Organisation).

What of the exhibit then? Well I really liked a lot of the works, and I may elaborate upon them in seperate posts. Of all the Science Gallery Exhibits I’ve attended this was the one which had the strongest content.

But more interesting for the immediate term is the thoughts it prompted on art:science, and it’s place. This is pertinent to me given my recent acceptance to Laboratory Life. I brought my dad along to the exhibit (the first time he set foot on the Trinity Campus!!!) and his views on the exhibit were instructive in me thinking through some of the issues of exhibiting art:science. From what I understand of the Science Gallery’s inception, it was set up as a space to encourage public engagement with science, and I don’t think I am far from the mark in assuming that to be one of the general remits of art science. My fathers response to the exhibit was that he deigned that the ‘layperson’ would have difficulty engaging with the works on display.


My fathers views on art and science interested me. He had expected more audio/visual presentation of the work, which when I pressed him on it amounted to a desire on his part to have more contextual information on the project, and where the project creators envisioned the project going, or where they saw practical applications for their research. I found this rather interesting, as this seemed like art:science more heavily weighted in favour of the science.  But this division is interesting in terms of how my father considered art and science as separate domains, not mutually exclusive, but definitely fulfilling different remits.

That this can be so is an interesting development given how artistic and philosophical exploration was once not so clearly demarcated from scientific enquiry as to necessitate the need for art:science collaborations (pretty in vogue, I think it’s fair to say). But something my father said resonated with my own opinions on art. A caveat before proceeding further, I am no art history expert, and until recently I think it’s fair to say I held a rather narrow conception of what art was and what it’s place in society was. Further, a great deal of my reasoning of what art is has been infected by affective considerations springing from my theoretical exposure in Goldsmiths. But my dad felt that art should be emotionally evocative, that it should move or impact upon you. For him art doesn’t need to be thought provoking, it’s should elicit emotions first and foremost. I would bracket a work that is thought provoking as art, but I took on board my fathers opinion. And it is an opinion that is especially pertinent given the title of this exhibit.

Visceral. The science gallery has it’s own rationale for choosing this title

There is something that makes us a little uneasy, perhaps even queasy, about the idea of creating artworks from living tissue. VISCERAL incorporates ten years of SymbioticA’s challenging work at the frontier between fine art and biotechnology and forms a series of provocations and puzzles around the nature of the living and non-living

There is a clear play to the idea of abjection here. Artworks which play with living tissue should inspire revulsion and perhaps prompt reflection of the bioethics of biotechnology. But many of the works on display today left my father cold, he labelled many of them as too abstract. And there is a part of me that will concede this point to my dad: I held off purchasing a program until I had done one circuit of the gallery, I wanted to let the works impact upon me and let their initial impression inform my opinion of them. Some of them I had prior knowledge of (Nigel Hyler’s Host: documenting how crickets perceive a lecture on cricket sex), and others were so damn intriguing they wired straight into my cognitive register (the silent barrage).

In sum I do wonder how well such installations can work on affective level. A classic example would be The Vision Splendid (pictured above). On immediate impact, on an affective register, this work would leave you cold. It’s a scientific apparatus par excellence. It’s only when you learn of the source of the biological element of the work that it affects you. And for me that is interesting, that a conceptual (dare I say, cognitive) qualifier is required before the work realises it’s true affective impact.

In one way it’s interesting as a negotiation is necessary to unpick the ramifications of what the work encapsualtes in a single form, and that sort of unfolding really tickles me pink. But I can see how it mightn’t be for everyone, and I am also not sure how much such works qualify as art. Anyone who better appreciates the nuances and poetics of how art operates please comment on this and educate me!

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~ by Stephen Fortune on May 9, 2011.

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