Art and science collide in Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor’s collaborative installation.
Spanning various disciplines including medicine, science and philosophy, “The Body is a Big Place” is open at the Science Gallery London, from 27 July until 17 August 2017.
The exhibition is part of the Science Gallery at King’s College London’s “BLOOD: Life Uncut” exhibition and event series. The series focuses on the symbolic power of blood “to save expose, shock and save lives” by telling “personal and provocative stories of this vital, life-affirming fluid that connects us all”. The installation will also be shown at Copeland Gallery in Peckham in October 2017.
“The Body is a Big Place” explores organ transplantation and “the ambiguous thresholds between life and death, and speaks to the incredible system that is inside each of us”. The artists explain how “the work’s title refers to the capacity for parts of the human body to traverse vast geographic, temporal and interpersonal distances during organ transplantation processes.”
was an immersive bio-art work comprising a five-channel video projection, a fully functioning bio-sculptural heart perfusion system used in two live performances to reanimate fresh pig hearts, an undulating aqueous soundscape by Gail Priest, and a single channel screen-based video work.
Originally research-based, the project began in the laboratory and clinic, before being extended to the wider community. The artists worked closely with members of the organ transplant community in Melbourne, individuals who then formed part of the work itself as they then performed in the underwater video sequences that make up the installation. In doing so, the artists stress the extraordinary experiences of those involved in the multiple steps surrounding organ transplantation, whilst exploring the effects that these images and visual experiences can have on the viewer and the repercussions that the installation may have on the viewer’s relationship with their own interior and its ultimate decay. They tell Art Radar:
The reanimation of fresh pig hearts in two performances highlighted the process of death as an extended moment, rather than an event that occurs in a single moment in time. Rather than sensationalising these actions the artists sought to encourage ‘empathic’ responses from viewers by appealing to their somatic senses and fostering identification with the hearts they were watching. This opened up the possibility of a deeper awareness of viewers’ own interiors.
For its second London showing, the installation will be displayed within The Old Operating Theatre of the Science Gallery, contextualising the piece within the history of surgery and prior attempts to understand the mysteries and inner workings of the human body. The operating theatre is the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe, dating from 1822. In response to this historical context, the artists will re-stage the heart perfusion system, but there will be no live performances or fluids running through the system. They share with Art Radar:
Rather, the perfusion device will stand as a form of relic – to the work itself and to a number of entangled histories of medicine and science – surgery and organ transplantation in particular, and the heart perfusion technique developed by German physiologist Oscar Langendorff in the 1890s that has become central to scientific cardiac research and that forms the basis of previous live heart perfusion performances in “The Body is a Big Place”.
There will also be video screenings of the live heart perfusion performance taken at the Science Gallery in Dublin in 2013, and a video of a performance from a swimming pool, performed by members of the Transplant Australia community in Melbourne.
Australian artist Peta Clancy‘s work is concerned with themes of Australian conflict, memorial and resistance, exploring the intersection of art and biological processes for the past decade. Her series She carries it all like a map on her skin (2005-2006) explores the skin as a porous membrane in-depth, considering the relationship between bio-art and photography. She was awarded the 2018 Fostering Koorie Art and Culture, Koorie Heritage Trust Residency in Melbourne.
Helen Pynor‘s work is preoccupied with the “life-death border”, something she sees as a philosophically precarious zone. Her practice spans sculpture, video, photography and performance, including large-scale installation pieces and more intimate works. Critical to her practice is her engagement with biological specimens. Her work is shaped by research residencies in scientific institutions such as Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden.
In an essay about the installation (PDF download), psychologist Doris McIlwain comments on the interdependency of each artist on the other:
“The Body is a Big Place” is a multi-layered project each artist felt could not have occurred without the other with their different and overlapping hybrid forms of expertise. Each felt emboldened, accorded courage by the other as they wish to lead us to deepen our relation to our own interiority. Their process in acquiring an organ to set up a pair of beating hearts of pigs was something of a parallel process to the likely experiences of true organ recipients; concerns about timings, accidents, phone calls and contingencies, tracking down scientists with the requisite knowledge, and being prepared to go back to the drawing board if it all falls through.
First shown at Performance Space in Sydney, in November 2011, the installation has already been widely exhibited internationally. In 2012 it was awarded an Honorary Mention in the Hybrid Arts category of the internationally prestigious Prix Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria.
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