Weird science

By Amanda Conner (That's Shanghai)
Updated: 2006-07-14 14:59
Weird scienceThe 'Bio Art' exhibit Strange Attractors, as its title implies, provides a seductive, some might say unnerving, glimpse into the future. Conceived in Australia, and now showing at the Zendai Museum of Modern Art, this unlikely fusion of art and science is an altogether new species, at least in Shanghai.

In its native habitat, though, Bio Art has grown with the rapidity of ragweed, and shaped and spurred debate on the ethics of the scientific community. Bio Art is produced through the interaction of biological and/or scientific systems; as such its material is organic tissue. Its concept, however, is less tangible.

In designing this exhibition, curator Antoanetta Ivanova chose examples that capture the "fascinating results of the lesser known or less apparent" connections between art and science. And the hybrids on display are fascinating indeed. Strange Attractors features all manner of biological art, including action shots of the cellular functions that occur beneath our skin. Another work, "Victimless Meat" was produced from frog cells, the result of a biopsy wherein cells were extracted from the amphibian, then placed in a Petri dish to mature into "frog steaks". While this particular exhibit is suggestive of a certain urban myth concerning Kentucky Fried Chicken; on a more serious note, it offers an alternative to factory farming.

Dr. Jon McCormack's Future Natural presents an altogether more dystopic scientific trajectory. Like many a man-made object, his digital depictions of nature are tailored for aesthetic pleasure and convenience. His work synthesizes palatable replacements for nature, and the natural systems that mankind is so rapidly destroying. Simply put, his point is that the survival of the fittest has become survival of the prettiest. "My main concern relates to the irony of our desire for progress and comfort at the expense of our environment," says McCormack.

Weird scienceThis theme, the conflict between truth and technology, is also addressed in Julie Ryder's Hortus Veritas, or "Dried Truth". This work features a cabinet with 50 drawers, each of which contains prints, herbarium specimens or textiles, representing the history of collection and the science of taxonomy that developed in tandem with the early colonization of Australia. The aim here is to confront the viewers' perception of truth and beauty. Says Ryder: "I participate in this type of art in order to make socio-political comments on events and trends. Many people do not understand scientific jargon, and art is a visual medium that can engage people in a different way."

That this exhibition is different may be something of an understatement; that it offers a path to engagement, debatable. Take the title of this exhibition, for example: Strange Attractors was inspired by an impenetrable mathematical concept, an analogy referring to the more complicated relationships and chaotic dynamics of two parts and their corresponding behaviors. The exhibit's stated aim is to demystify that concept. That intention, however, only succeeds in part.

A few of the artists participating in this exhibit, Justine Cooper, for instance, are better at illustrating abstract concepts than others. In Saved by Science, she gives the viewer a look into the hidden world of the human desires, in particular the desires of humans wearing lab coats. Her photographs, taken with a camera nearly 100 years old, explore the seldom seen storage areas of The American Museum of Natural History in New York City. They reveal a world filled with curiosities, including forgotten treasure maps and illustrations of the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger, which in turn raise questions about the mentality of those who source and assemble such collections. "I wanted to capture something beyond what's already on scientific record, and question whether it's knowledge, curiosity, or ownership that drives us to collect," Cooper explains.

What the collected works in this exhibition demonstrate most clearly is that the collaboration between the arts and sciences is not one that comes naturally. But its very novelty is intriguing, and at the very least one can come away from Strange Attractors with one worthy idea: science may have hijacked reality, but artists are still able to question their findings.

Strange Attractors
Date: July 22-August 31
Location: Zendai Museum of Modern Art, Zendai Thumb Plaza, No 28, Lane 199 Fangdian Lu, Pudong
Ticket: RMB 20
Tel: 021-50339801