Somewhere in Between: Four Collaborations, Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London, 8 March-27 August 2018
Sally O’Reilly, Lecturer, Creative Writing
I walk into a black box, disorientated for a moment as the space resolves itself. Giant blue screens show human shapes dancing on tightropes, strange sub-aqua acrobats. Sliding down against one dark wall, I take out my notebook and write in the darkness, wondering if by doing this I am rendering the experience of being here inauthentic. Over-thinking, under-feeling, creating responses that sound coherent when in reality I’m confused. There is a sound track which has a rhythm of breathing, suddenly interrupted by a tannoy announcement from Reception – the ‘Teeth’ tour commences shortly. I am here, but should I be?
The ‘Somewhere in Between’ exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection is described by the Londonist as ‘wonderfully immersive’ and yet for me its reach and diversity make it a curiously distracting experience. Four collaborations between artists and scientists have created work which explores ideas relating to HIV, food production, sensory perception and the potential of the human body. There is a 54-page booklet providing copious background information, and yet somehow I feel lost.
Given that there are fine distinctions between definitions of ‘multidisciplinarity’,‘ interdisciplinarity’ and even ‘transdisciplinarity’, the title ‘Somewhere in Between’ is usefully vague. Outside in Euston Road, the temperature is close to 30 degrees. Inside the building, there are expensive books, delicious cakes, metropolitan cool.
The figures now flit against the turquoise blue. In the installation ‘Under’ artist Martina Arnati and anaesthetist Kevin Fong present an undersea vista in which free divers – diving without breathing apparatus – seem to inhabit a different world. I remember an Oscar Wilde story about a pearl diver who dies after bringing a pearl to the surface. The three screens are all different – I twist and turn to look at them. More visitors filter in, black silhouettes against the blue.
Next door, ‘Alien Sex Club’, John Walter’s collaboration with scientist Alison Rodger, is set up in a maze that feels like a 1980s party. The harsh subject matter – attitudes to HIV – is offset by the bright and garish colours, the vaguely party atmosphere. It’s another world again. There is a set of Tarot cards – I’d like to look more closely – but a herd of tourists are standing in the way. Should a reviewer be a curious mind on a stick, channelling responses? I’m feeling dizzy, and retreat.
‘Sire’ is the work of artist Maria McKinney and scientists Michael Doherty and David MacHugh. Eight bulls have been photographed, each magnificent and solitary, like portraits by George Stubbs. They stare massively at the camera, monsters of testosterone, small eyes glinting with malign intelligence. They are astonishing creatures, emanating violent rage. McKinney has made sculptures from woven semen straws, which are used for artificial insemination, and each bull carries one of these on its back. I’m wondering what this is telling me. The flimsy, coloured structures might be a metaphor for extrinsic art, the add-on ‘nice to have’. Each bull has a nose ring, its minder holding it at a distance with a metal rod.
And finally, two films by artist Daria Martin and scientist Michael Banissy: ‘Sensory Tests at the Threshold’. I watch these before reading about them, baffled, intrigued. A woman is told to say which cheek is being patted, left or right, and the sound track melds her robotic responses with various peculiar sounds – no tannoy interruption this time. A hi-fi speaker is placed before her, then a lamp, finally a red-lipped young man. She is distracted by him, loses the thread. The second film is longer, there seems to be a story, there are slatted blinds casting a strange light on the face of a Hispanic woman, some sort of tension. I remember when they used to show two Tarkovsky films in a row at the Ritzy in Brixton, you would emerge into the light of late afternoon barely knowing your own name.
Afterwards, I go to the café. Someone has spilled black coffee all over the service area. Eventually, I am given my pot of Earl Grey and a tiny chocolate brownie on a blue patterned plate. I sit among the cool people. Art and science, collaboration and conversation. It’s the eyes of the bulls that linger in my mind, that savage dignity.
A bit more than a review, this, one suspects. It is more about the reviewer than that which is being reviewed — the “I” having an experience in the Wellcome Collection gallery. This doesn’t comment on the artifacts with the confidence of a connoisseur or the verve of an enthusiast. “I” deliberately holds herself back from the artifacts by protesting her confusion — perhaps protesting too much? Because despite feeling confused, lost, dizzy, disorientated, “I” lets us know that she is an arts aficionado by slipping in quite a few high culture references. “I” is perhaps not unaccustomed to protesting her confusion in galleries and libraries and theatres often. When “I” says she is confused that could be a way of saying the artifacts are not up to much. This is loaded confusion because it performs a lucid point about in-betweeness: by the juxtaposition of art and science, being informed and being confused, cool interiors and the warm exterior, the elemental bull and the sophisticated (cool) urbanites.
Interesting Suman! But aren’t conventional reviews holding back from including the subjectivity and mood of the reviewer? I wanted to create an in-betweeness, yes, between formal reviews and writing a subjective response to an experience in a gallery, a form of creative nonfiction. I’d be interested to hear what others think.