Between the 1840s and the 1860s, a rather curious artifact circulated sideshows and carnivals. The Fiji Mermaid, as it was titled, comprised of the mummified head and torso of a monkey, attached to the tail of a fish. While there was no evidence that the creature, exhibited by eccentric American philanthropist P.T. Barnham, was the body of a ‘realmermaid’, it nevertheless held the fascination of audiences throughout the Western world. The history of science is littered with such hoaxes, from the Fiji Mermaid, to the ‘missing link’ discovery of the Piltdown man in 1912 (exposed as a forgery in 1953). These events highlight the instability of bodies of knowledge, and the ease at which we can be mislead—or choose to be.
The work of Australian artist, Svenja Kratz examines this blur between artifact, and artifice, by pragmatically combining the fields of science and art to create simulations, or realisations of hybrid creatures and organisms—blending fact and fiction in intriguing new ways. Kratz’s work explores the fluidity of knowledge, and the layers of fact and fiction surrounding cultural interpretations of science and its applications. Kratz uses various motifs and signifiers to enact the atmosphere of the museum within the art institution. Creating works in, and out of, the laboratory and then bringing these projects together, Kratz’s work explores, destabilises and reevaluates our traditional relationship with science.
Kratz’s Life and Death Vessels: A collection of curiosities (2011-2014) play on the prevailing desire of Western culture to understand the world through conquering and containing it—a nod to the cabinet of curiosities; a tradition of Renaissance Europe to display collections of biological oddities, artifacts or antiques of uncertain origin. Merging life and death in contained environments, Kratz seamlessly combines live and preserved plant and animal forms, and real and imagined animal assemblages inside an array of glass jars and vessels. A testament to the Western drive to capture, preserve and understand nature, but only within a predetermined environment, the Life And Death Vessels are aesthetically captivating; they emulate the tokenistic pride of place nature is afforded in its arrested state—the aestheticised display of preserved, or curated nature in an institutional context. Perhaps also, reflecting the multiplicity of routes to truth embarked upon by Western culture, and the compartmentalisation of knowledge—inscribed upon many of the vessels are quotes from philosophical and scientific texts, such as Giorgio Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal (2003) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus (1980) and Armand Leroi’s Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body (2005).
The tokenistic display of nature, or its likeness, within the museum setting, parallels that of art in traditional contexts—the sterility of the space, the imposed aura of the presentation. In a set of white frames, a series of hybrid insect/human/synthetic assemblages are displayed. While Kratz has blended human hair with the insect specimens in the assemblage process, she has also combined human and insect cells in the lab. The wings of the crafted hybrids are printed with images of insect and human cell co-cultures. As the insect cells appeared to dominate during the co-culture experiments, the assemblages only include limited human features (human hair, and flesh colouration on the wings).
The fantastical construction of the mutant as a monstrous figure; a hybrid splicing of multiple creatures—is a surprisingly prevalent interpretation still held within Western culture today, amidst simmering (often misguided) fears regarding scientific progress. In Real and Imaginary Mutants (2014) Kratz plays on the real, and the unreal incarnations of the mutant in contemporary science and culture. Kratz’s highly illustrative mixed-media drawings depict monstrous creatures of myth found in popular culture, history, and contemporary interpretations of biotechnological mutations. The colour Kratz uses within the drawings are composed of membrane vexicle pigments of mutant Achaea proteins, isolated during an ArtScience residency Kratz undertook at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands in 2013. Thus, the real mutation is the colour visible in the drawings, rather than the monstrous creatures of fantasy depicted.
Kratz’s work not only highlights the interrelationship between art and science, but the environmental similarities between the institutions governing each field. We understand science to be a stable equilibrium—yet, it is adapted to suit the agendas of Western society. Like other cultural institutions, science presents us with a curated experience of the natural world, one that Kratz embraces reflexively to reveal its discrepancies, contradictions and clichés.
Written by By Tara Heffernan
Courtesy of Spiro Grace Art Rooms, 2014