An-Aesthetic, their recent exhibition at tactileBOSCH, took as its starting point consciousness and the senses, but as with Mandee Gage’s Pods, ceramic structures that mimic insect nests and contain familiar scenes, it creates a micro-world where humans and nature struggle for dominance, where the body is unreliable and vulnerable to attack from the smallest bacterium, yet our actions threaten to disrupt entire eco-systems. This exhibition gently exposes these truths, the facts we already know but prefer to ignore or forget.
This selective forgetting is prevalent in Heather Barnett’s work and her experience of working with NHS trusts. Her range of Cellular Wallpaper, inspired by the patterns made by cells taken from her cheek swab, blood film and cervical smear, rearranged into traditional, chintzy wallpaper designs. Barnett explained that the original intension for these wallpapers was to hang them in outpatient waiting rooms, however, a number of NHS Trusts deemed them unsuitable as, although unrecognizable as human cells, their subject matter could upset patients. This heightened sensitivity from an institution that deals with our internal health points towards a general unwillingness to acknowledge the body’s internal secrets and vulnerability, something Barnett plays with in Footprints. A chain of lightboxes show a line of footprints made from the images of bacteria found on human feet. These samples, taken from healthy feet, were left to develop under laboratory conditions into a lethal state, hinting at the fragile relationship we have with our own bodies.
Myrtle Clark Bremer and David Jane also look at the fragile nature of the body, but their work, stemming from personal experience, shows a complex relationship between disease and sufferer. Clark Bremer explores the structure of the human body. A sagging figure made from muslin cloth gives some clue as to how she, as someone with ME, interacts with the world. Jane, who contracted herpes simplex encephalitis that severally damaged his memory, naming and reading abilities, creates portraits based on his brain scans. Layers of wax bleed away to reveal hidden surfaces – thoughts, blood vessels, memories or electrical impulses? It is unclear what these self-portraits show us, but it is clear that these images reveal little more of the artist than an image of his external appearance.
Appearance plays a central role in Alexa Wright’s Cover Story, which looks at how we construct ideas about a person via their face. Wright, who uses new technologies to investigate the expression of human identity, argues that the face can be seen “as literally an interface between the individual and the world.” A face contains a great deal of information – it shows emotions, gives us clues about a person’s character, and carries the with it marks of time, all of which helps us to make assumptions about a person’s story. In this work, however, two faces confront the viewer – one is a formless projection, blank, devoid of expression or clues as to age, gender, or history. The other is a face that is “literally pure surface”, but again reveals nothing about the character. An intimate monologue describes how this face can do little but smile in any circumstances, hiding its true feelings behind an equally impenetrable veneer of expression.
It is against this backdrop of internal and external spaces, and questions of how we physically experience the world that Gage asks us to consider what effects our way of being has on the world. Working as an artist in the fields of bionomics, medical physics and genetics, Gage’s work is concerned with physical and psychological health and its relationship to the environment, in particular, the breakdown of complex systems. Gage creates miniature worlds through her work as in Pods or Boxes, a collection of small animal skeletons, leaves, etc encased in box frames and shown as a museum-like display of life. Slumber Party creates a peaceful space where jungle sounds lull us into a relaxed state, yet suspended silk bags representing species of tree frog serve to remind us of the complex eco-systems that are under threat by human actions.
Like Gage’s work, An-Aesthetic asks us to remember, to feel sensation and connect with the world around us. Despite the advances of science, we are not masters of our universe, but a part of a finely tuned system that is equally beautiful and dangerous. Science can help us to understand our place within this system whilst art illuminates the mysterious intricacies that keep this world turning.