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Beneath the Surface
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From the catalogue Beneath the Surface, published by MSVU Art Gallery, 2010
The Nova Scotian artists Nancy Edell, Kim Morgan and Susan Wood share an interest in corporeal experience. In the works selected for Beneath the Surface, the artists present metaphors for the invisible, sometimes pathological processes taking place within the body.
The exhibition includes a life-sized Dress (1991) drawing by Susan Wood, in which parts of a woman’s distorted anatomy are delicately rendered through the screen of an ethnic wedding dress. Nancy Edell’s hooked mats (1998-2001) reveal organisms teeming beneath the surfaces of body, earth and ocean, on the borderline that distinguishes what is biologically human from what is not. In Kim Morgan’s Corpulence (2009), chandelier-like clusters of test-tubes and glass slides with microscopic scans of human fat evoke the penetrating power of scientific imaging technology as it is brought to bear on an obese human subject.
By the time she made the four-panel work Nut with Neutrophils (2001), Nancy Edell was a cancer patient. With her immune system weakened by chemotherapy, Edell had more reason than most artists to be familiar with the term neutrophils. Neutrophils are white blood cells that attack infections by trapping or ingesting bacteria.
Edell typically combines the biological with the mythological, and modern microbiological imagery with ancient cultural motifs. The first three panels—Macrophages, Two-headed Pot and Nut with Neutrophils— depict attributes of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, such as her horned, pot-shaped headdress, which is thought to symbolize the uterus, and a hardware nut, punning on her name. In the fourth and final panel, Nut and Geb, the figure of the goddess arches over that of her husband, the Earth god Geb.
The landscape in Macrophages and Nut with Neutrophils, which depict white blood cells and bacteria, is clearly that of the body in trouble—at the microbial level. In the former of these fantastical scenes, a pink uterus-shaped creature with fallopian tube legs skewers a sinister brown organism. In the latter, a nut floats against a background of hairy, rod-shaped E. coli bacteria. The bacteria shapes extend into the incised plywood frame, on which the nut-neutrophil resumes its biological form as a single cell with a multi-lobed nucleus. The variations in the shapes of the similar but slightly differing wooden frames, and the bleeding of their imagery into areas of pictorial hooking, reinforce the theme of metamorphosis that predominates in Edell’s iconography. Rapidly proliferating and mutating bacteria confront defensive neutrophils that will die upon ingesting these pathogens. But the genetic agility of the microbe meets a formidable foe in the prodigious fertility of Nut.
Mother of the gods, who gives birth to the sun each morning and swallows it each evening, and protector of the world, Nut is associated with gestation and the celestial cycles, also with death, resurrection and rebirth. Edell’s invocation of this figure as the antidote to disease is explicitly feminist in its pitting of women’s procreative power against that of mutating microbes and cells. Nut is neutrophil.
The reproductive role of women receives a similarly mythical treatment in Susan Wood’s life-sized, unmounted drawing, Dress No. 16 (1991). Meticulously composed and rendered, the fragile image bears traces of rough use; it appears worn and at the same time, hauntingly alive.
Dress No. 16 demonstrates a feminist’s approach to questions of reproduction and representability, fragility and longevity—issues commonly associated with works on paper—considered here within the frameworks of gender and sexuality.
Matching the grandeur of Dress No. 16 and the fantasticality of Nut with Neutrophils, the glowing chandelier form of Corpulence (2009) makes a strikingly decadent spectacle. At once opulent and strange, the sculpture signifies the medicalized body by means of its bloody colours and the sub-cellular scans printed on clear film inserted into the hanging test tubes and mounted on the microscope slides.
The photo-based images in Corpulence are derived from a biochemist’s research into the lipid bi-layers that form a component of E. coli and human embryonic kidney cell membranes. The scans were made by an Atomic Force Microscope, allowing much greater magnification than previous microscope technology. Lipids are bio-molecules, insoluble in water, that are associated with human fat and cholesterol, among other fats. The lipid screening blood test, for example, assesses a person’s risk of heart disease by measuring the presence of cholesterol in the blood. Kim Morgan’s interest in lipids centres on their structural role in defining cell surfaces as a form of architectural skin. Corpulence also alludes metaphorically to the ability of fat to store and release energy (here, in the form of light) and to the cultural currency of fatness or obesity as a source of obsessive concern, if not moral panic.
The technological mediation of this bodily imagery is extreme. First, the specimens were electronically scanned and the data processed by software, after which the images were coloured and manipulated into patterns by the artist. Morgan then transposed them from their digital environment into the context of household decor, the chandelier fitted with incandescent light bulbs. The blatant extravagance of the resulting status object provokes further thought on the perils of over-consumption, particularly the over-consumption of calories.
Hooked mats, a dress and a light fixture: each fits into the feminized category of domestic objects that merge utility with decoration. In these works of art, women’s traditional concern with vulnerable bodies reaches out beyond the domestic and into the public sphere, to implicate the ideologies, behaviours and biological processes that place life in jeopardy.