The human body. The human being. Expectation and convention might suggest, I suppose, that I talk about the aesthetic gaze as it is sculpturally focused on the human body. But I’ll slide sideways a bit, so that while the human body, the human being, is indeed the focus of work I want to talk about, there is nary a representation nor visual reference to the aforesaid anyway in sight. This is about the foreign invaders, those intrusions (intended or not) into and upon the body that, for the most part, fall into two distinct groups: viruses and bacteria and pathogens on the one (by-and-large unwelcome) side, and the oral medications we so increasingly consume to deal with myriad physiological and psychological maladies on the other. Viruses and bacteria and other pathogens are generally of the natural world, while medications are obviously no such things. The oppositions of the natural and the synthetic come into play here, but intentionally so, and I proffer by way of examples the work of two artists, Luke Jerram and Colleen Wolstenholme – one British and the other Canadian.
I’ll begin overseas and with the work of Luke Jerram (www.lukejerram.com). He’s a glass artist whose sculptural and installation work has been shown widely and internationally. It’s his “Glass Microbiology” series that is pertinent here, work in which Jerram has created glass sculptures of some of the bacteria, viruses, and pathogens that invade our body – like the SARS virus, E.coli, malaria, the Zika virus, avian flu, and HIV. These pieces are, of course, macroscopic iterations of microscopic entities. And Jerram has rendered them all neutral – in clear, uncoloured blown glass – in deliberate opposition to the falsely colored representations we are more used to seeing.
This is truly the stuff of nightmares – Ebola, and the like, the more horrific devastators of life, of cultures, of entire populations – but even nightmares have their own particular beauty. Created by Jerram at the level of the macroscopic, and rendered in neutral, transparent glass, they seem benign and utterly aesthetic (and, indeed, are), stripped of the hellishness the microscopic originals unleash upon us. They’ve become artefactual. His E. Coli links in our minds to a living thing; the main body of the bacteria is encompassed by flagella that Jerram recreates so as to suggest motion and life – activity. And T4 Bacteriophage (a bacteria that infects E. Coli) is a sculpture that seems decidedly zoological, like some oddly recognizable living creature, perhaps scuttling about deep in the ocean near some thermal vent but something that corresponds in our mind to the natural world. But his HIV resembles nothing whatsoever of the natural world with which we think we are familiar. It’s decidedly sculptural, decidedly aesthetic, and in that respect inert. I don’t suggest that as a criticism, but rather that it has an overt and insistent stillness and artefactuality about it – is even, in some respects, decorative. And yet, there it is doing its thing (the real thing, I mean), out there well beyond the level of our unmediated visual experience. That which enters our body, unbidden and unwelcome, are dimensional forms that alter life dramatically.
In a widely exhibited series or sculptural works based on pharmaceuticals, Canadian artist Colleen Wolstenholme (www.colleenwolstenholme.com) engages the body and the systems of the medicines that have grown up to accommodate its needs and shortcomings – and, increasingly, to manufacture needs and shortcomings. Now, ‘big pharma’ is a phrase most of us have become familiar with, especially in light of the sometimes quite dubious practices undertaken by some entrepreneurs to bump up the prices of drugs that have long been affordable (Martin Shkreli, anyone?).
Wolstenholme doesn’t address that issue directly, but rather goes to the heart of the other ethical and moral issues involving how such drugs are so often prescribed, especially to women, and for what reasons. What’s she done involves scale: she’s created cast and carved plaster sculptures of different drugs – especially that class clinically know as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) but which we know as antidepressants – blown up to the proportions of self-consciousness and self-awareness of what these things actually are. This is what we are consuming to deal with our ills (real or those that big pharma advises we might have), albeit shown here at a vastly larger, even bloated, scale. Like her sculptures of the anti-anxiety drug Buspirone (marketed as Buspar), sprawled like ungainly things across a gallery floor. These geometric shapes are less in-your-face when resting in the palm of the hand than they are lying on floor as sculptural objects (notably, not on plinths, but shown as if scattered things accidentally dropped on a bathroom floor in the course of being dispensed). There, they are impediments at both physical and intellectual-emotional levels. They insist on being seen, on consideration, and that consideration mirrors the bloated status they’ve achieved via relentless advertising pointedly insisting that, no matter their shortcomings – their often shocking and distressing side-effects – that this pill will cure what ails ‘ya.
This is an issue especially pertinent to women, for whom antidepressants are disproportionally prescribed and dispensed. No argument that they have a critically important role and place, but they’ve very quickly become first resort rather than last, and so Wolstoneholme seeks to aesthetically point out their intrusive presence in our world. And she does it very well.
Wolstoneholme’s work has been the target of drug companies arguing copyright infringement. No matter. She’s moved from the scale of gallery works to the scale of jewelry, to wearable art, creating pieces for wrists and necks adorned with miniature iterations of the drugs in question, much more to scale.
This isn’t mere adornment. This is work that is as equally insistent of consideration as her gallery pieces, work that will be seen and will be eloquently heard.
By Gil McElroy