Travelling to UQ Art Museum from Tasmania’s Salamanca Arts Centre, New Alchemists explores ideas of futuristic biologies and post-human engagements within the broad intersections of art and science. The exhibition features a diverse collection of works by Australian and international artists that channel experiences beyond our accessible human and non-human worlds.
For UQ Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, Dr Karin Sellberg, the exhibition considers themes that closely align with her research interests. Karin will not only open the exhibition on 16 June, but she’s also written an essay in the accompanying catalogue.
Specialising in feminist and queer historiography, contemporary fiction and theories of gender, sexuality, embodiment and time, Karin is particularly interested in convergences and communication between feminist and queer fiction, and the intellectual history of science and medicine. We caught up with Karin to get her thoughts on this provocative exhibition and the works of art that may challenge our sense of familiarity and truth.
Q: When you’re talking to friends and colleagues, how do you describe the New Alchemists exhibition?
A: I think of this exhibition as an engagement with the multi-fold questions of life; the origins and materiality of life, the understanding and measurement of life, and the experience of life. It is a creative exploration of some of the most important questions both in the sciences and humanities today – how we approach our practice as academics and how we approach the material we work with in general. Furthermore, it problematises our relationships to our bodies, our surroundings and Nature (with a capital n).
Q: What is your personal connection to New Alchemists?
A: The philosophical questions raised by this exhibition align closely with my research into feminist philosophies of corporeality, science, technology and life, which I think is why the curator, Alicia King asked me to write a philosophical catalogue essay to accompany it. In this essay I argue that there has recently been a ‘turn to life’ in feminist philosophy and critical theory. We’re exploring the possibilities and limits of materiality and scientific measurement, and once more asking the age-old question of the nature of life ‘itself’. New Alchemists engages not only with present scientific concerns, but also with those of the past, which connects it to another interest of mine – the history of science and medicine, and the continual processes of material (and immaterial) self-exploration that these involve.
Q: Is there an artwork in particular that you’re drawn to?
A: This is a difficult question, as I think this exhibition is so well curated that all of the artworks really speak to each other, or come to life in relation to each other. For example, Michaela Gleave’s The World Arrives at Night (Star Printer) receives additional relevance and connotations from Nadege Philippe-Janon’s Jerry on the Katabatic Wind. Both works display a set of measurement processes, or means of visually representing natural movements. Whereas Gleave represents the measurement of Earth’s rotation through a dot matrix printer churning out endless numbers on paper print-outs, Phillipe-Janon translates changes in the local weather conditions into a unique and continually changing visual language. One work speaks through numbers, and the other through colour and shapes. One work measures something universal, the movement of our entire planet, our shared world, whereas the other measures a concept that is pointedly specific and local, the weather conditions surrounding the museum space.
One work I find particularly enticing, probably because of my interest in medical history and ontological ideas surrounding the concept of life, is Art Orienté Objet’s May the Horse Live in Me!, a performative piece by the French duo Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoit Mangin. Throughout the duration of this piece, Laval-Jeantet injects her body with horse tissue immunoglobulins and horse blood plasma. The purpose is to bring down the barriers between the species, and to some extent move further towards becoming-horse. This is particularly interesting to me, because the very first blood transfusions conducted in England by Richard Lower in 1665 used different types of animal blood, and the initial intention was to transfer certain desired animal qualities. Blood was seen as the vital essence, or ‘life force’ of the creature, and thus carried its distinctive characteristics. For example, lamb’s blood was used to pacify mental health patients who suffered from extreme outbursts of aggression. The practice was discontinued, due to the high-risk factor and a number of very public failed experiments, but the conception of blood as synonymous to life remained for a long time. Laval-Jeantet explores the experiences of her horse blood transfusions, wearing hooves and spending protracted periods of time with the horse. She described to Centre Press how the experience made her feel “hyperpowerful, hypersensitive and hypernervous” and to some extent “superhuman”: “I was not normal in my body. I had all of the emotions of a herbivore. I couldn’t sleep and I felt a little bit like a horse”.
Q: Why should the UQ community get along to see this exhibition at UQ Art Museum when it opens later this month?
A: This is a provocative exhibition, and I’d be surprised if anyone left it feeling entirely unperturbed. For me, this is what signifies a truly powerful art experience. I think particularly students and academics (but also the general public) should make sure to go and see the show, because it problematises and de-normalises what we do, and the questions we face, on a daily basis in the university space. We should not allow ourselves to take the concepts of life and materiality for granted, or read our various means of measuring these as ‘truth’.
Dr Karin Sellberg will open New Alchemists on Friday 16 June at 6.15 for 6.30. RSVP by Friday 9 June. The exhibition will run until 3 September 2017.
Curated by Alicia King, New Alchemists is a Salamanca Arts Centre exhibition toured by Contemporary Art Tasmania. Contemporary Art Tasmania is supported by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its principal arts funding body, by the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy and is assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for the Arts. Salamanca Arts Centre is supported by the Hobart City Council and the Tasmanian State Government. The exhibition is supported by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its principal arts funding body, through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for the Arts and Contemporary Art Tasmania Exhibition Development Fund.