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.
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?
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.
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.
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.