Alien Sex Club, exhibition at Wellcome Collection

Review: Somewhere in Between at the Wellcome Collection, London

Image credit: Michael Bowles, Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition is a sensorial collection of art installations inspired by scientific questions and advances.

The temporary exhibition comprises four collaborations between artists and scientists and is intended to explore how artists to “give shape to the human experience, provoking ideas about our senses, our sexual health, our bodies’ limitations and reflections on our food chain”. All four art collections originate from projects funded by Wellcome.

By naming the exhibition Somewhere in Between, Wellcome hopes to reclaim a pejorative term which is often used to suggest that sci-art does not belong anywhere, curator Laurie Britton Newell told E&T. It also refers to the scientific phenomena which can be found “in between” entities, such as a connection between two human bodies.

Under is a collection of three films developed by Martina Amati in collaboration with physiologist Kevin Fong. These films look at free diving - diving without an external air supply - and explore the limits of our own bodies and how they may be controlled. Entering this part of the exhibition through a darkened corridor to find a room with films projected across three walls is suggestive of a descent into a water tank.

Under, exhibit at Wellcome Collection

Michael Bowles, Wellcome Collection

Image credit: Michael Bowles, Wellcome Collection

Amati’s films were all filmed and performed on a single breath of air in the Red Sea. Isolated against a vast blue backdrop, the divers appear sometimes strong and graceful, sometimes limp, vulnerable and passive as seaweed. There is something soothing about the vacuum of words here; the weightlessness of the divers and the emptiness of their surroundings. We may well be watching astronauts floating in zero gravity or organisms swimming under a microscopic lens.

Like Under, Sensorium Tests and At The Threshold focus intensely on human experiences. The films, created by Daria Martin, explore the recently discovered neurological phenomenon of “mirror-touch synaesthesia”, whereby a person can feel another’s sensations of touch on their own body. The stylish 16mm films are full of extreme close-ups, textures, colours and words repeated until they become ambient noise. Both Martin’s and Amati’s works create bubbles of intimate human experience that feel distant, as though encased somewhere we do not quite belong.

Sire, a project led by artist Maria McKinney, is the closest to a traditional display of art at the exhibition. This is a series of large photographs of bulls in the mould of nineteenth century livestock paintings and inspired by genetics in modern cattle farming. The bulls all stand side-on while chained to a handler and wear intricate, colourful sculptures on their backs. These sculptures are woven from artificial insemination straws using an old corn-weaving technique (originally thought to be used to make corn dollies for pagan celebrations of fertility). The sculptures represent different desirable characteristics currently being bred into cattle, such as hornlessness.

Sire, exhibit at Wellcome Collection

Michael Bowles, Wellcome Collection

Image credit: Michael Bowles, Wellcome Collection

The result is an appealing set of images. The very artificial structures sitting on these blimp-like creatures in such down-to-earth surroundings may well have been scribbled on with gel pen.

Most playful is Alien Sex Club, an interactive exhibition by John Walter which explores changing attitudes to HIV, which is now a manageable condition with normal life expectancy. Walter has created a maze in the style of a gay club or other cruising ground, packed with neon lights, sounds and psychedelic images. The only element missing is that heady night-time aroma.

The maze is a mash-up of the medical science, drugs and gay culture that feed into conversations about HIV. Expect to be bombarded by surreal films, cartoonish drawings of penises, stylised images and models of the HIV virus, a wall of Tarot cards featuring pop icons like Zombie Boy and Breaking Bad’s Walter White and variations on Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit which replace the fruit with pills, giant sperm, condoms and blown-up cells. At one point in the maze we pass two blue toilet cubicles and from inside we can hear male voices chattering with regional accents.

30 years ago, an HIV-themed maze may well have been a horror exhibit, but Walter’s installation is riotously bright and optimistic, perhaps reflecting how campaigns and medical research have transformed HIV from a death sentence to a manageable condition with its own subculture emerging around it.

When it comes to Somewhere in Between, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts and this theme is perhaps too loosely defined. Certainly, this is not the Wellcome Collection’s most coherent exhibition. However, the four artists’ installations all hold up as well-informed, appealing and thought-provoking exhibits and the Wellcome Collection remains one of the best places to go to see how sci-art should be done.

Somewhere In Between is open at the Wellcome Collection from 8 March until 27 August 2018.

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