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John K. Grande

Metamorphosis & Cloning
Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal
May 25 - Sept. 2, 2001

[ 1,166 words ]


From the grafting of a human ear onto a mouse's back, to Dolly the cloned sheep in the UK, examples of biotechnological manipulation of the natural order of things are surfacing everywhere, largely without public consultation, education, or even the legal structures to handle the profound ethical issues raised by this kind of enlightened research. This arrogance has extended into many aspects of daily life, notably the food we eat, the planted vegetation that surrounds us, and there is often no labeling to tell us if products are unaltered or not. What will the long term effects of such manipulations be on humankind and the environment? The danger of introducing climate resistant species into natural settings is that the biogenetically altered eventually wipe out the endemics. The boundaries of human intervention in nature's order are being transgressed daily and for this simple reason the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal's Metamorphosis & Cloning exhibition has attracted a great deal of attention.

Using photography, video installation, sculpture, painting and robots, the invited artists deal with a range of aspects including the body, a certain loss of identity, the transgression of human and animal forms, and the duplication and multiplication of the human figure. Spencer Tunick, an artistic commodity in his own right, is well known to audiences in North America for the photo shoots he co-ordinates enabling volunteers to strip down to the buff in the hundreds for group (not groupie) photos. The naked body is Tunick's favoured art material. The first involved 28 people and was taken at the United Nations General Assembly Building in New York in 1994. Others include the Boston Public Library, Maine, the Nevada desert, Chinatown in Los Angeles and the Queensboro' Bridge in New York City, each public space adorned with all races, religions and body sizes in the buff. (The volunteers model in exchange for a limited edition signed Tunick print.) Tunick is currently financing a world tour of future sights with sales of his photographs and his photos have a festive flavour, like Woodstock in a politically correct age. These landscapes of people break social taboos and challenge the whole context and subject of the human body. As Tunick states they create "a dynamic tension between the bodies and the outside world."

Chinese performance artist Zhang Huan's Foam (1998) has headshot photos of himself with family photos in his mouth, his head covered in soap suds. There is a feeling of moral suffering and anxiety in the partially obscured face, the photos, the cleansing of tradition and personal history by rapid change. To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995) has a photo of Huan and his friends nude piled on top of one another on a mountain top, fusing with nature. The colour photo To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond (Middle] (1997) documents a performance in which Zhang engaged peasants to pose, standing nude in a fish pond near Peking. These workers, exiled from rural regions, evidence the rapid transformation of Chinese society — their faces and bodies have a resigned expression.

One of the best sculptures is Marc Quinn's Cloned Morphology (1998). Made of blown glass covered in silver, it has two heads amid a mercurial melted pool of silver. Forces beyond reason are transforming matter. His Reverse, Colourblind Pastoral Nervous Breakdown (1999) has green heads that hang from a metal structure. They bleed a haunting green and red polyurethane onto the floor. They're identical and their pain is identical. The tension is unrelenting, as is the sense of absence. Gilles Barbier's genteel colour photos poke fun at cloning. The clones are at work in one such image, and in Plyform 2 (1999) the clones are delinquent and smoke hash, shoot up, eat out of a bucket, lean against a wall and pass out. Barbier's I am a Dog (2000) sculpture has a life size clothed guy with Reality Corrector Tickets appended all over that read: 'I would be infinitely grateful if in your mind's eye you could replace this leg and foot with a leg and paw. This is how my limbs are made. (Thank you for trying and congratulations if your attempt is successful.)'

Vanessa Beecroft's hauntingly similar cloned blonds call to mind David Cronenburg's film Dead Ringers. They definitely have an identity problem and that's not all. They have the same fashion tastes! Beecroft contrasts these blond multiples seen in photo prints and her video VB 16, Deitch Projects, New York (1996) with macho males in white Navy attire in the video VB 39, US Navy SEALS, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (1999). Janieta Eyre takes a similar tack as Beecroft, but is less sociological. She plays with the imagery. In Motherhood(2000), a two-headed, red haired woman holds a sheep's head in a woolly blanket. She has a red cross on her ornate blouse and an ornate mirror behind her. Nathalie Grimard's poetic body-conscious art transposes plastic engraved quasi-scientific images of eyeball, lungs, and spine atop photos, and a methodical schedule of pain spots accompanies the piece. David Blatherwick's Multiple Horizon (1998) multiple video monitor piece displays close-ups of the body — hair follicles, beauty spots and all — as a landscape horizon with background breathing sounds. In Blatherwick's Escape Velocity (2001) haphazardly wall and floor placed monitors shift from blue screen to an image of a man's jumping body that appears, then disappears, all in a flashy attempt to escape gravitation. One of the best works is Xavier Veilhan's Naked Men (2001), a panel with synchronized light bulbs. They change from pure light grid to an image of someone walking towards you. This low-tech pixel board is hypnotic and engenders a feeling of anonymity and expropriation of the body. The curved wall titled La Plage (2000) again has a low-tech pixel-like effect, this time with a simple arrangement of coloured squares that create a blurry photo-like effect. Who are these people? Some of them have crown-like extrusions on their heads.

Metamorphosis & Cloning raises a lot of questions about the relation between art and issues. Many of these artists address the issues well, but their creative impulse seems painfully self-conscious and hamstrung by the thematic overdrive that brought this show into being. This show is not quite high school confidential, yet one wonders if some of these artists, if they did not have an issue to fix on, would know what to do. The question then becomes: 'Are these artists clones?' 'Are they cloning ideas about cloning and metamorphosis of the body?' A more extravagant, less codified and expressive exhibition could have been achieved by including artists whose work has not been officially sanctioned, beatified by the museological establishment. It would have been a lot more fun!

review originally appeared in Art Papers

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.


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