Look at 'The State of Us'

Dr Adam Freeman visits an exhibition at The Lowry in Salford Quays. Where technology and biology meet, does art naturally grow?

Can we create art that is founded upon science, and at the same time aesthetically pleasing? In the 202 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, how have our attitudes – and fears – changed? The publicity for this exhibition reminds us that Shelley wrote that the body is a 'workshop of filthy creation', adding 'never has this been truer in the digital age'. We are promised digital artists from the 'grotesque to the wonderful', examining 'how the body and self are transformed, manipulated, reinvented and reshaped to create a new "self", to reshape our human connection – for better or worse.' As a physicist with an interest in how our culture is reflected in art, I was intrigued. 

Using a wide range of media, ten works by artists from eight different countries invite us to question the increasingly blurred boundary between our nature and our inventions. Opening the door to the exhibition room, I am immediately struck by the atmosphere: low lighting, strange objects, strange noises. 

The most pervasive piece of the exhibition for me is named ‘Anatomy of Desire’, a video piece accompanied by a soundtrack of a regular slow drum beat with occasional unsettling piercing tones. This pervades the whole exhibition space, setting an ominous tone for visitors’ perception of the whole exhibition theme. The video itself shows disjointed footage of faces and bodies with severe distortion effects – sometimes causing the appearance of agonised faces torn apart at the level of their very fibres. The piece is meant to represent a criminal’s disturbing mental images, playing out in front of an onlooking jury, represented by two impassive faces on opposing screens either side of the main video. 

The piece in the adjoining room held five suspended circular frames, like unlit chandeliers, each joined by wires and holding eleven vessels of dark liquid. The liquid was seven litres of the artist’s own blood, although in the dim lighting this was not apparent until viewing accompanying video screen showing its creation. The concept is that the blood is used to form a battery which powers a small synthesiser module, though sadly it doesn’t seem to be operating, and the video gives little further understanding of the piece. It is noted that an artificial replacement liquid has been used in place of the artist’s blood – presumably for pragmatic or hygienic reasons, although taking away this essential biological aspect leaves the piece with even less effect or purpose. 

‘The Tides Within Us’ shows a number of pictures of various parts of human anatomy, with the visible exterior removed and represented by black and white swirls, as if smoke moving within the vessels. The images are both striking and beautiful. The swirls appear so thickly textured and three-dimensional I am tricked into thinking they were painted with oils. The manipulation created by Marshmallow Laser Feast appears to show the actual flow of blood or breath without the actual structure or vessels that constrain them, and it would be fascinating to learn what technology was used to create these images of the fluids that represent our very life-essence.

What does a virus look like from inside? The virtual reality exhibit shows a 3D representation of being inside a Herpes Simplex virus. This places the visitor at the centre of a pleasingly colourful realm of symmetry, although the interaction is limited to looking around the projected image enclosing the viewer. To be shrunk smaller than a virus and to see it from within is quite a fantastical concept. The experience is admittedly a little underwhelming from a technological point of view, given that scientists do already use such software representations to study proteins and pharmaceuticals, and that people may be familiar to video games with more interactivity and impressive graphics.

The presence of a collection of rare Marvel comics was unexpected and not unwelcome to this middle-aged sci-fi enthusiast. However, its relevance to the exhibition is not immediately clear: rather than focusing on technology, it explores the evolution of the perceived ideal of the human (and super-human) form.

A number of other pieces were visually striking. One room is lined with jars of ‘decellularised’ hearts, mutated in a variety of imaginative ways (‘Art of Deception’). The 3D-printed skeletal hand seeded with stem cells (‘Regenerative Reliquary’) is iconic and evocative of the fascination and revulsion we may feel from stories of artificial creatures, mutations and augmentations. The lighting and distant heartbeat booming all add to the impression for these. 

A stand-out piece named ‘Brains In A Dish’ seems to comprise two parts, one of which represents some cells in a Petri-dish which is actually the artist’s skin cells rather than brain cells, without a clear link to the other part. The ‘brains’ actually comes in the form of an elaborate transparent structure illuminated by green lasers which danced over its surface. It was not until closer inspection that this glass was revealed to be reshaped laboratory glassware – warped and melted into a tangled network of shapes. The smooth tubes are teased in some places into many tendrils, evoking the image of dendrites, extensions of nerve cells, through which signals pass to neighbouring cells. For me, this quite captures the concept of hybridising biological structures with technology. The artistry with which the glassware is reshaped, and the technology used to program the motorised lasers, creates a pleasing way to represent a natural process which goes on inside us effortlessly and continuously. Another name for it could have been ‘Thoughts in Glass’.

Although this is an atmospheric and interesting exhibition, at times I felt that the scientific story behind the exhibits could have been stronger. Perhaps this exhibition might lead the visitor to feel the realities promised by our technology-powered evolution are inevitably heading toward a rather dark and unsettling future, similar to the gradual evolution of Marvel Comics towards grim and gritty realism. One is always aware of the ominous drum beat from Anatomy of Desire during the visit. Alongside this warning, it might have been comforting to emphasise a little more the elements that speak of the joy of living, connected with the wonders of our own ingenuity.

The State Of Us’ is a free exhibition at The Lowry, in Salford Quays, Greater Manchester, UK, running until 23 February 2020.

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