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It’s rare for an art gallery to have live animals on display but artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr couldn’t resist. Well known for their living artwork – organisms grown from scratch but created and presented in a visual arts context – they have installed a “bio-reactor” in the Art Gallery of Western Australia, within which is an incubator culturing up living tissue. It sounds a bit scary, but the exhibition Biomess is a fascinating combination of three elements: the incubator, aquarium-based animals and (deceased and preserved) animal specimens.

Catts and Zurr have been culturing living tissue artworks for many years with their work at SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, at the University of Western Australia. This exhibition is part of a continuing AGWA program featuring local artists, sited in the main project space. “It is a small-big, big-small exhibition area that asks for ambitious responses,” says curator Robert Cook. “It allows artists to push themselves.”

Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, Brush Tailed Phascogale – Biomess, 2018, detail, The Tissue Culture & Art Project Collection, Western Australian Museum.

With the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on their minds, Catts and Zurr also wanted to create a sort of retail display including their live examples alongside the specimens borrowed from the Western Australian Museum. These include an albino western brush wallaby, a male emu, and a brush-tailed phascogale, while the living creatures run from a giant panda snail, stick insects, marine molluscs, sea stars and sea cucumbers to grey field slugs, and an axolotl.

The selection of animal specimens challenge human ideas about sex, gender and reproduction – all of them are oddities to some extent. There are, for example, creatures that make new parts out of their own bodies, others that participate in cross-species mating, male creatures that fornicate themselves to death or incubate eggs. “All strange and puzzling things that are incredibly beautiful,” Cook says.

Splitting the space in two, the artists have installed their incubators inside an elaborate framework on one side and the display of specimens on the other side.

“It has a very deconstructed feel to it,” Cook says. Catts and Zurr told Cook that while one part presents organisms designed by humans in the name of “progress”, the other organisms are those that evolved to fit our shared environment; but both are mysterious and not under our full control.

Because the artists employed workers who produce retail fit-outs for stores such as David Jones to do the installation design, it is reminiscent of a luxury retail outlet, albeit one which questions human “exploration and exploitation of biological life”. Cook says the design of the show echoes his own thoughts that “shopping is the way we connect most to objects”.

Underneath all this are questions about where life actually begins when a creature is made, why humans feel they are somehow in control of the natural environment, and the way we are driven by our own technological advances. As Cook puts it, we need to ask why we are “slaves to the things we are making rather than wondering if this is the correct path to follow”.

Viewers will not be given easy answers: the wall panels explaining and describing the various objects have been purposely located a small distance from the display so that we cannot follow a direct path through it.

“The thinking is that you might semi-forget the information you read if you have to go back and forth between the panels and the objects,” Cook says. “Which might replicate where we are with science.”

That said, he loves the way the bio-reactor/incubator is very primitive tech, and viewers will be intrigued by “how un-Apple-like it is”. “The most advanced things can come from very basic old chemistry-set type things – it deconstructs that sense of how we might imagine the future.”

Biomess – The Tissue Culture & Art Project
Art Gallery of Western Australia
8 September – 3 December

This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 print issue of Art Guide Australia.

Andrew Stephens