The new exhibition at London’s Science Gallery, “Genders – Shaping and Breaking the Binary”, curated by Helen Kaplinsky, “considers gender in relation to fashion, reproductive technologies, gaming and changing ecologies”. In doing so, it manages to at least partially break out of the science communication ghetto in relation to visual art and media, as typified by, say, the Wellcome Collection, also in London.
It’s twisted, a bit slimy and reasonably transgressive, but still tries to attract the scientists out there in the labs at King’s College London and has in-house scientific advisers such as developmental neurobiologist Clemens Kiecker who “studies how the brain forms as an embryo emerges, and how this process is directed by instructions in our genetic code”. Indeed in ‘’on being allergic to onions’,…we read Susan Leigh Star’ by Nina Wakeford, referencing the feminist science of Star and Haraway, the drag king H.P. Loveshaft, taking on the role of a a deranged physicist, teases the potential audience by thanking the scientists from Kings for taking valuable research time out of their labs to see the exhibition.
Announcements like “Attention Reproducers!” “Be fruitful and multiply” boom out in the lobby of a hospital or science facility as cleaners with vast ‘baby mops’ – cleaning equipment bearing a mountain of infant dolls – sweep the floor with babies literally and endlessly, only pausing to check their phones. Laura Yuile’s film ‘Once U Care, You’re Future’ considers “the never-ending feminine labour of child-rearing and cleaning” and ‘questions our drive for biological reproduction and technological innovation…”
According to Wikipedia, “Twerking like many cultural traditions or expressive dances associated with marginalised groups has become stigmatised in racialised and gendered ways that often associates those who perform the dance—primarily girls and women of colour—with deviant behaviour.” The 90’s dance craze, originating from New Orleans ‘bounce’ music has been re-appropriated by artist Fannie Sosa and film-maker Marilou Poncin in ‘Cosmic Ass’. Turning twerking into a life-giving form of new-age style yoga excercise, using fake backdrops of waterfalls and the Milky Way, Fannie Sosa twerks and thrusts her way through a narrative that includes other forms like hula and belly dancing and fertility rituals in Africa and other places. She concludes with the potential for this movement to actually prevent reproduction, the twerk (a combination of twist and work) preventing the fertilised egg from nesting in the uterus. Who knew?
‘Cosmic Ass’, Marilou Poncin and Fannie Sosa (2015):
New forms of reproduction are featured in the new work-in-progress initiated by Shu Lea Cheang, who represented Taiwan in the last Venice Biennale, and Makery’s Ewen Chardronnet, entitled ‘Unborn0x9’ by the Future Baby Production collective. This will culminate in a performance in April in collaboration with echOpen living lab, who are developing an open-source ultrasound echo-stethoscope for smartphone, centering around three artificial wombs, hacking an audiovisual and ultrasonic score interpreted by performers and musicians. Inspired by Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ “depicting a world where babies are made in test tubes, where the word ‘parent’ has become obscene and banned since the appearance of ectogenesis has put an end to ‘viviparous reproduction’ this new body of work tales as its inspiration recent development in artificial wombs,’biobags’, ‘fetal phantoms’ and explores the new bio-politics taking place around reproduction outside women’s bodies since the invention (by the military) of ultrasound technology to intervene in the process of pregnancy.
Slime starts with the work of Mary Maggic, in ‘Milik Bersama Rekombinan (Recombinant Commons)’, created in Indonesia, a “rotating mandala projection comprised of trash found in the river, symbolising the constant recombination of plastic particles inside our own bodies, and a sculpture with blue agar “that invites microbial contamination juxtaposed against contained samples of bio-remediating fungi.” It continues with the slick and slimy imagery of ‘Skin Flick (Invasive Species) a rather yucky portrayal of bodies “absorbing and interacting with chemicals such as beauty products, drugs, supplements and organic material” Inspired by research into the non-human desires of fungi and marine invertebrates they “cast new eyes on human appetites and behaviours”.
Finally Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s ‘We Are Here Because Of Those That Are Not’, forbids entrance to the installation those who deny the existence of black trans people. If one chooses to enter after these admonitions, one is seated in a vibrating throne, where various challenges are issued and options to help resurrect black trans ancestors in the form of three large coloured buttons labelled 1, 2 and 3. First you are challenged to state your preference. I can’t lie to an art installation, so I chose with some trepidation the option CIS gender, which meant that I identify with the gender assigned by me at birth. To this the game’s speakers boomed that I have systematically “buried the lives of black trans ancestors”, but I could make good in this game “resurrecting black trans ancestors who can share hidden knowledge”.
Other works included Nigerian Yoruba artist Rotimi Fani Kayode’s cross-dressing photographs and gilded phalluses similar to the long-nosed Venetian masks used by doctors during the plague, as well as a number of projects, special events and games and performances investigating tools and technologies to navigate genders.
I found this a thought-provoking exhibition in terms of the way the artists challenged our notions about gender, if rather over-mediated, as these science-based exhibitions tend to be. I can’t quite believe that if I “ask a Gallery Mediator how I can contribute to ongoing live research here” (as stated in the guide) that this will seriously contribute to the exhibition, but I could be wrong. The video works, coming as they did from the Birth Rites Collection, curated by Helen Knowles, were particularly strong. I look forward to returning for the performances in April.
Visit “Genders, Shaping and Breaking the Binary” at Science Gallery London until June 28, 2020.