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Review of "BioBallistic" at the Barnsdall Art Park
September 24 - December 31, 2004
The, often dystopic, philosopher of speed and technology, Paul Virilio, once
wrote, "Ecological catastrophes are only terrifying for civilians." This
sentiment often, and disturbingly, comes to mind when considering the current
trajectory of scientific production, particularly in the fields of bio- and
nanotechnologies, and the apparent beginnings of, what Virilio termed, "Total
War" represented in current US foreign and domestic policy. The bodies
of civilians have become both "targets" and "collateral damage" in
the machinations of military, business and scientific progress. So, when I
received the announcement card for a new exhibition entitled "BioBallistic" with
an image of an atomic explosion, these thoughts came rushing to the front of
The exhibition, curated by independent guest curator, LeRad Nilles, features the works of ten artists who are said to be exploring the space between science and art, perception and understanding. The pieces included in "BioBallistic" cover a fairly wide range of aesthetic interests, spanning traditional sculpture to manipulated photography. But underlying this display of visual difference is a very strong and deliberate privileging of allusive abstraction, the meaning and importance of which depends on what you want from the art.
Upon entering the exhibition, one first encounters Eric Johnson's "Untitled Column" (2004) and Lita Albuquerque's "Stellar Mapping" (2004), two of the show's most visually demanding works. Johnson's column, a floor to ceiling sculpture of wood and resin, pays homage to both Brancusi and the Human Genome Project in the form of a vertical, helical structure alluding to infinite form. Where Johnson uses materials as media, Albuquerque's "Stellar Mapping" asks us to infer meaning from the selection and presentation of materials. The installation is made up of an eight foot cosmos of pulverized glass, upon which rests glass spheres filled with water and honey.
This difference, the use of materials as elements with meaning versus the use of materials as mere matter to be shaped, is noticeable throughout the show, and creates an interesting sense of tension between the works. The wall mounted sculptures by Daniel Wheeler and Peter Shelton use materials like wood and fiberglass to create forms suggestive of biomorphic-industrial hybrids. In contrast, a drawing of a galaxy by Sarah Perry, titled "Time and Again" (2002), draws much of its impact from the realization that the white specs signifying stars are in fact created with bone dust. Then there are the works of Tony Berlant and Marianne Magne. Both create two dimensional works that challenge the perception of materials, but from a perspective that questions the process of perception as much as the materiality of objects. Berlant's large images of fingerprints, an image loaded with the implications of biometric data, break down into simple scraps of industrial painted tin upon closer inspection. In a slightly less successful, if more technologically contemporary, compression of macro and micro realities, Magne's "Anamorphosis Botanica" (2002), depicts a fictional microscopic life form composed of images of herself and her friends.
The curatorial starting point, and the inspiration for the show's title, is a process that creates transgenic cells by shooting nano-sized metal projectiles, coated with foreign genes, into ordinary ones. Considering this process, one that arguably replicates, on a micro scale, the violence currently occurring at the hands of the US military, the choice to explore our current technological condition through the language of abstraction is an interesting, and troubling, one. Going back to the announcement card, I'm reminded of the origins of the Human Genome Project - the US Department of Energy's interest in studying the effects of radiation on human genetic mutations caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Another reviewer of "BioBallistic" for the LA Times suggested that the works in the show might, in one hundred years, appear as "quaint" in their depiction of scientific concepts. If "BioBallistic" represents the current cultural engagement with scientific and technological developments, I'd say we would be lucky if anyone was around to make such a judgement.