SHIVER is a new exhibit of mixed media installations by Elaine Whittaker at the Red Head Gallery. Making beauty out of fear, this exhibit viewers are asked to reconsider their notion of beauty, in this precarious time of contagions.
Installation art is a means to have us, the audience, become directly involved with the artwork. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Elaine and had a guided tour of the exhibition. We discussed our mutual interest in visual arts, science, and how we, as a society react to the notions of fear and perceived danger. Here are some of the great insights which Elaine shared with me.
HM: Your currrent exhibition SHIVER aims to make beauty out of fear – fear of the viral, the microbial. Could you tell us what influenced this work?
EW: For the last couple of years I have been re-imagining in my artwork what it means to be infected, how pandemics evolve and their cultural significance. What is the aesthetics of these panics and disasters? My last installation, entitled Ambient Plagues, explored the epidemiology of pandemics by aesthetically presenting artworks that examined infectious disease outbreak narratives perpetuated by the movies, and scientific objects that collapsed fiction and reality.
My current work continues to examine the body as a site of infection, exploring how infection shapes our concept of self and identity… biologist Lynn Margulis offers the strongest argument that microbes are necessary in the construction of self as approximately ninety percent of our cellular bodies are microbial, only ten percent being purely human. Unfortunately, the alarmist view in popular culture prevails with narratives of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘self’ and ‘other’. And the media perpetuates fear of microbes escalating it out of proportion.
HM: Your work is part of an art practice called ‘BioArt’. In a few words, please share what draws you to bacteria, minerals, and other such ‘organic’ materials? It is quite fascinating and beautiful.
EW: The instigation for incorporating organic materials into my art comes from my fascination with the corporeal ecology of the body, medicine and the natural environment. I started portraying these notions by using salt. By working with salt, a mineral, I mimicked the organic by growing and nurturing diaphanous crystals on created and found objects. Many viewers perceived these crystals as organic because they were grown, but they are lithic, geological, inorganic — a mineral, not a cell. I was also drawn to salt because it is the foundation for life, from our primordial past in a briny ocean to our fetal beginnings in the salty milk of amniotic fluid. It is also the most common inorganic substance in the human body. Trespassing the boundaries between organic and inorganic, and between microscopic and macroscopic, salt became both my main material and metaphor in my artworks. Alongside salt other materials, wax, bones, mosquitoes and plant organics also are a part my material repertoire.
It was when I was researching and investigating the history of pandemics, the rise of infectious disease and global warming, and microbial life on earth that I was moved to incorporate live bacteria into my artwork… With a research grant from the Canada Council I took the first steps in setting up a laboratory in my studio and learning how to culture the salt bacteria Halobacterium sp. NRC-1. It is a non-pathogenic bacterium that lives in a high salt environment such as the Dead Sea, the Bahamas, and the Great Salt Lake. With a microscope and digital camera, I photographed the growth of their brightly coloured colonies and created drawings in petri dishes with the live bacteria. For a number of exhibits they have been an integral part of my installations.
HM: What do you hope people take away from SHIVER?
EW: Hopefully my work will move them towards coming to terms with their fears of microbes and infection. Microbes constitute who we and are a part of us. If the context of my artwork can lessen the fear by embedding it psychologically as beauty in the viewer, that would be great.
With this in mind, head over to the Red Head Gallery. Elaine is often there, so feel free to ask her some questions too. SHIVER runs until April 25th.