A London exhibition shows the work of some of the best innovators who borrow from advances in science and technology for their art.
Kinetic artists mine science for ideas
There used to be a time when the phrase "making sacrifices for your art" meant late nights, a bit of controversy and scraping by without much pay. Now, if recent headlines are anything to go by, it's likely to refer to something much more gruesome.
A couple of weeks ago, the Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal had to remove the camera implanted into the back of his head as his body was rejecting the device, despite treatment with antibiotics and steroids. He is hoping to re-implant it after the wound heals, so he can continue his project, streaming a photo a minute to monitors at the new Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar.
The Greek-Australian artist Stelarc (he changed his name legally from Stelios Arcadiou 38 years ago) has a similar story. A performance artist known for unsettling work, Stelarc had a lab-cultivated third ear attached to his forearm in 2007. He wanted to equip this ear with a microphone that could be hooked up to speakers, but the mic had to be taken out when infection set in.
The ear, on the other hand, is still there, as a crowd witnessed at London's 2011 Kinetica Art Fair this month. Stelarc was at the fair to perform simultaneously in Second Life and in person, in a piece in which the audience gets to interact with a floating holographic head. But he turned up early to pose for photographers and reporters who gawped as he prodded the weird-looking protrusion. It's a strange sight, but it wasn't the only bizarre thing on display in the huge exhibition hall filled with art that intersected with engineering, biotech, astrophysics and other branches of technology and science.
There was a cacophony of drones, whirrs, clicking and buzzing, while mechanical creations moved around as though they had wills of their own. An oval jar filled up and drained itself of water continuously; metal balls on flexible necks made sounds and moved to face each other; metal sculptures that looked static slowly shifted and rippled.
This is the art world's future, according to the Kinetica directors Dianne Harris and Tony Langford. They set up Kinetica Museum, dedicated to moving art, in Spitalfields in 2006, and have put on a complementary art fair for the past three years. "At that time that kind of [kinetic] work was represented in traditional galleries and museums but only in very small amounts," Langford says. "There wasn't anywhere that brought it all together."
Harris was working as an artist at the time, and was growing frustrated with galleries struggling to show her robotic installations. Now, she says, "there's a growing demand for this kind of work. People are starting to collect it". In London alone, she cites two Hayward gallery shows in 2000 - the sound art showcase Sonic Boom and the kinetic art exhibition Force Field - as helping to raise the profile of digital and mechanical art, and Langford flags up last year's V&A exhibition on digital and interactive design, Decode.
Although it's been around in some form since at least the 1960s, and despite these recent profile-boosting exhibitions, kinetic art is still a niche area; in part because it's difficult to install and maintain. The Dutch artist Christiaan Zwanikken, whom Harris and Langford tip for big things, knows all about this. His alarming inventions splice animal remains with levers, springs and wires. In one piece at the art fair, two decaying peacock heads with tattered crests move jerkily and pivot atop exposed aluminium machinery. Recordings taped from Spaghetti Westerns are synched up so that it looks as though the birds are talking in the voices of cowboys.
The effect is disconcerting. Another sculpture of Zwanikken's on display has two goat skulls on metal poles winding back and then smacking their heads together. "I play with the idea of nature against the artificial. We're so immersed in technology we tend to forget that we're still biological beings," he explains. The work isn't easy to install. "To preserve these kinds of art has always been a problem," Zwanikken says.
Madi Boyd is another artist whose work is more complicated than your average painting or lump of stone. She collaborated with two University College London neuroscientists to come up with a mind-bending installation that tricks the eye into appearing much bigger than it is. Viewers walk into a darkened tent and see an illuminated 3D grid that wavers, and stretches into the distance. "When you first enter it you can feel like the whole thing is projected on to a screen, but that's part of the illusion," she says. In fact, it's made from crisscrossing strings surrounded by infinity mirrors, and a film of the structure itself that plays back on to the grid.
"I'm a little bit of a geek," Boyd admits, saying that she keeps up with techie news and reads new and old science papers for ideas. "I'm interested in new breakthroughs; that inspires me." Luckily, geeky art has a market: geeky collectors. Robert Devcic founded and curates the gallery GV Art in central London, which specialises in art and science collaborations and took over an area of Kinetica. The gallery is the only one in the UK that has a licence to display human tissue, so they're allowed to exhibit brain slices, for example. Collectors who buy from GV, in Devcic's words, "often make their money from the sciences and are now specifically collecting art that has been informed by science". He says that the market for science-related art is "slowly growing".
Among the works Devcic has on display are a 3D laser etching in crystal glass of a dyslexic brain (My Soul by Katharine Dowson) and lenticular prints by Susan Allworth that change as you walk past them, showing a beating heart or a brain scan as different thoughts occupy the brain. There are also sculptures of robots made from defunct vacuum cleaners, with electrostatic glass balls or LED screens flashing a cheery message where their heads should be.
Like many of the displays and performances at Kinetica - a giant "GeoSphere" (by tech collective seeper) that pulses with light and creates patterns when touched ; a sculpture made from NASA's nanomaterial silica aerogel by Christina Saradopoulou; Alex Posada's set of flashing, revolving spheres titled Particle - these robots and brain scans serve a dual purpose. They're aesthetic objects, often mesmerising on the level of patterns, texture and colour, but they can also spark a sense of wonder at the world's hidden forces. Whatever else they are, they're not just gadgets.
The technology shouldn't be the focus of your attention, Diane Harris says. "It's behind the work; it's the paint and the paintbrush. It's a means to the final result, which is the concept and the message." She says that's what excites her about kinetic art. "Artists are coming up with new ideas because they're working across so many disciplines and boundaries."