Jun 3, 2000 - Mar 15, 2001
The art in Unnatural Science exploits 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 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 in Unnatural Science hailed a significant trend in contemporary art - one that not only demystifies, but also poeticizes science.
Slumber was 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. The REM is an analogue 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 like 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.
Grunfeld's Misfits, a series begun in 1990 of fantastic animals produced through manipulations of taxidermy, 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. Grunfeld taps into the anxiety surrounding both the recent successful cloning of Dolly the sheep and the gruesome failure 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 travelling 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 Andre√© Laramee
Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions is an unusual sort of laboratory. Although much of the equipment looks standard, Laram√©e 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, Laram√©e 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." Laram√©e uses science to explore the subjective realms of poetry, absurdity, contradiction, and metaphor - realms normally considered the province of art.
Eight fans were placed at cardinal points (north, northwest, west, etc.) and receive information from a weather station installed on the roof of the gallery. The fans replicate the path and strength of the wind over a field of 1,200 organza flags. During storms the patterns that emerge are particularly beautiful - the flags resemble 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.
In this piece, 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 are purposely ugly, the complete environment is eerily beautiful and haunting. Each creature whirs around in its liquid light-filled medium emitting chirps and snippets of song. When any individual jar is approached, the creature inside clams up and stops moving, seemingly in fright, and becomes a dead, sterile "specimen."
Researching the collection of the Fleming Museum, Oatman discovered that its first director 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's office, with many of the disturbing artifacts he collected combined with video and other work made by Oatman. Oatman's project goes 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 has been pursuing in paintings, sculptures, drawings and other art forms for several years, each player in the creation of the cosmos takes on an individual personality. Stacked and The Fast Set both depict the big bang, but from different vantage points and moments in time. Ritchie's continuing project represents 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 transforms the cold facts gathered in a lab into a warm, sensual interpretation. The result is neither a narcissistic presentation of Schneider's superior genes, nor an uninflected marshalling of evidence about him; Schneider's Genetic Self-Portrait is 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 Smith invokes 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 few topics that have enchanted scientists and artists equally over several centuries.
Borealis is a dramatic portrait of the geodynamics of Steina's native Iceland. The sounds and images that compose this piece were recorded in the Icelandic landscape. The viewer walks among four doubled-sided projections created with mirrors that reflect and multiply the image emitted from two projectors. Roiling, churning waves and fecund, dewy plants appear 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)