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Biomedicine in museums

Beyond postmodern bioart?

By August 14, 2009No Comments

Yesterday, Vancouver-based writer and curator Robin Laurence wrote a persuasive plaidoyer for post-postmodern art, which I believe has some implications for the understanding of bioart in museums (I’ve been musing about bioart in sci/tech/med museums before).

Laurence identifies a movement of “emerging and established artists who are working with found and salvaged materials, discarded objects and even detritus in what could be seen as a ‘shabby’ or ‘garbage’ aesthetic” which draws attention to “everyday waste and overconsumption”:

British artist John Isaacs employs not scrap lumber or old paint cans, but wax and epoxy resin to create highly realistic sculptures. Often grisly and unsettling, they reflect the profound anxieties of our age. In another approach, artists are embracing a modest scale and old-fashioned media, such as drawing, painting, collage and fiber. Their humble, handmade creations suggest the emergence of a “kitchen table” sensibility. Raymond Pettibon, for example, is acclaimed for his cartoon-like ink drawings on paper, which are filled with social and political observations and quotes from literature and popular culture. Ghada Amer represents a neo-feminist sensibility. Her work, which often consists of embroidered paintings, sculptures and installations, addresses the condition of women, including their sexuality and desire. Her canvases, their images and text embroidered in colored threads, also reveal the kind of gestural, abstract-expressionist painting that postmodernists long ago abandoned. This suggests that the individual “mark” is also part of the new aesthetic.

Rirkrit Tiravanija attempts to change the emphasis in art from the making of objects and their viewing within an institution to socializing and the sharing of experiences. These experiences often revolve around food, which the artist prepares and serves to his audiences – who are also participants in the creation of his art.

In addition to these artists, Robin Laurence focuses her search-light on the legions of street artists,

whose political, social and environmental beliefs are temporarily communicated in alleys, vacant lots and abandoned telephone booths – through graffiti murals, urban ‘interventions,’ posters, stickers … and drawings dropped into the gutter. Again their strategies aren’t new, but they’ve taken on a new urgency in light of today’s economic and environmental crises.

Obviously, bioart is a contested genre. There is a strong tendency to turn bioart into institutionalised high art. This is what, for example, the Wellcome Collection is doing, over and over again (and how could they do otherwise?). We too: in fact, every exhibition we have produced has contained an element of this “postmodern trend toward large, glossy and expensive production”. Our latest exhibition, Split + Splice, is a good example. It may not be as expensive as Olafur Eliasson’s productions. But it’s surely expensive compared to what most medical museums tend to use to spend on artwork!

But — and this is my point — sometimes we have moved into the sphere of urban intervention art, like in the 2006 exhibition ‘Sygdommens Ansigt’ [The Face of Disease] by Huskegruppen. That’s almost it, however. We’ve still got a lot to do in that direction.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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