Do art and science mix? PART ONE: BLOOD

“It’s not a science museum, it’s not an art gallery, it’s something in between.”

This is how Andrea Bandelli, the CEO of the Science Gallery network, describes the exhibition spaces in his organisation that are popping up all over the world.

Science Gallery Melbourne is the newest kid on the block and its first exhibition “BLOOD: attract and repel” has some pretty exciting pieces. There’s a glistening, fibreglass heart that’s almost as big as you are, a virtual reality experience that lets you move around inside veins, and an installation that displays the heart rates and fingerprints of visitors who choose to participate.

Recycling – an enormous fibreglass heart sits on a San Lun Che, a tricycle used to transport rubbish in China.© Bao Yiluo & White Rabbit Collection Sydney (used with permission)

The gallery is aimed at 15-25 year olds, showing that science can be “hip” and “groovy” and “[insert millennial slang here]”. They are hoping to get more young people (especially women) to value science and to choose a career in STEM.

Blood + Biology

BLOOD invites us to explore our automatic reactions to biological matter. It features the horse hoof stilts from the performance art piece “May the horse live in me” where woman is injected with horse blood – a stunt to highlight our feelings of distance from the natural world. You can also view a foetus, preserved in formaldehyde and encased in clear resin – the internal made external.

A friendly but sterile white contraption sits in one section of the exhibit. This installation is called Sentience. It is an “olfactory-visual synesthetic installation,” a machine that emits a very specific smell – the smell of blood. It contains the molecule trans-4,5-epoxy- 2(E)-Decenal which is solely responsible for giving blood its distinctive scent.

We know that animals react predictably to this smell.  Carnivores are attracted to the scent (because food) and for prey animals it’s a sign of danger (because they *are* food). (FUN FACT: there is little evidence for the urban myth that periods attract carnivores, not even sharks or bears.) In contrast, the reaction humans have to the smell of blood is not so certain and pretty mixed. Sentience is able to read the facial expressions of those who smell the molecule, and flashes different colours depending on your mood.

Even now I’m not sure how the smell of blood made me feel. The scent it gives off is sharp and metallic, which made me uneasy. But that might just be because I expected to be unnerved. Perhaps the smell of blood would otherwise be pleasant? We are omnivores, after all.

Blood + Culture

BLOOD also challenges us to question our entrenched cultural reactions. The ongoing stigma around HIV is highlighted in Blood equality by Jordan Eagles, who displays the blood of gay, bisexual and transgender men within resin plates. This is a protest piece against the unfounded discrimination that restricts queer men from donating blood. Another piece, Blood objects by Basse Stitgen, invites people to hold objects made out of HIV infected blood. The blood has been heated and dried into a plastic-like material, which makes the objects completely safe to handle. But would you still be squeamish to touch one?

Basse Stittgen’s Blood Objects features everyday objects such as bowls and vinyl records created from baked waste blood from slaughterhouses. © Basse Stittgen (used with permission)

If you’re squeamish about blood in general, the Hotham Street Ladies contribution may not appetize – they’ve created large-scale toilet graffiti of uteruses and menstruation. The kicker? It’s made entirely out of piped royal icing. Delectable.

You Beaut features depictions of menstruation made delectable © Hotham Street Ladies (used with permission)

In stark contrast, A preponderance of Aboriginal blood by Judy Watson is one of the more sombre pieces. It displays electoral enrolment statutes from the Queensland State Archives that were used to classify Aboriginal people and Torres Straight Islanders as “full blood” or otherwise, and by that definition deny them the right to vote. This piece questions how race is defined and the role of science and data in that process. After all, the creation of “race” is cited as one of the biggest mistakes of science.

At Science Gallery Melbourne, the cold empiricism of science is prodded and poked at by artists. Just as science is used to poke and prod at the world itself. Ryan Jeffries, the Creative Director of BLOOD, says that the exhibition asks, “Can we ever really be objective?”

These are just a few examples of some of the great pieces creating controversy and constructive conversations in this exhibition. From deconstructing the taboo around menstruation to highlighting the stigma against HIV to breaking down the barriers of race – there is a lot of excellent thinly-veiled activism.

BLOOD is a free exhibition at the University of Melbourne in the Frank Tate Building, open until September 23rd, 2017. Go check it out!

Science Galleries are just one example of a worldwide trend in science museums and discovery centres doing some really innovative stuff. In part two of “Do art and science mix?” we’ll take a look at this trend.

3 Responses to “Do art and science mix? PART ONE: BLOOD”

  1. nudawela says:

    Well written! I enjoyed the way that you summarised each of the installations. I attended the Blood Exhibition myself a couple of weeks ago. I can attest to how the smell emitted from the “Sentience” machine can make someone feel uneasy at first, as I felt the same way.

  2. Ehlana Tompsett says:

    Art and Science definitely mix, in the most fascinating of ways it seems! I love how the exhibit is so much more than just an introduction to the basic biology of it, and more of an exploration of how deeply the concept is steeped in our worlds.
    You’ve inspired me to go and have a look at the exhibition. Might even drag my family along too.

  3. Nancy Rivers Tran says:

    This is a great introduction to the Blood Exhibition! I can’t wait to read the next one. Maybe you could add your own opinion or thoughts when you visit it, as a scientist. That would be very interesting to know for both people who are interest in science but not involve in it and for scientist who are currently researching.
    Great job!!