AN INTERVIEW WITH ELAINE WHITTAKER
about her recent exhibition SHIVER at RED HEAD GALLERY
by Laura Horne-Gaul May 15th, 2015
Elaine Whittaker is not a germaphobe but rather an artist using her work to explore and educate viewers about their own fears of microbes and infections. "If the context of my artwork can lessen the fear by embedding it psychologically as beauty in the viewer, that would be great," Whittaker says.
Whittaker employs this beauty by using stop motion animation, salt crystals grown on petri dishes and face masks exposing the bacteria and microbes. Whittaker explains, "I am enthralled with all of them (microbes and bacteria), and the startling juxtaposition between their dazzle, colour and shapes in the microscope with their capacity for untold damage and endless fear."
Also Whittaker strongly believes that we need to get dirty to survive. In this interview about her recent exhibition Shiver at Red Head Gallery we discuss the nitty gritty of her background and future plans for her work.
Laura Horne-Gaul: What made you make the decision to explore science with art?
Elaine Whittaker: August 2001--seventeen smog days and counting. I emerged from the air conditioned subway at Ossington station only to be hit by yet another wave of heat and humidity. A noxious soup of pollutants swirled around as I laboured for my breath. My body began to sweat and my skin glistened with beaded droplets. But this was not a sweat induced by emotion or excitement, fear or love, this was a thermal sweat. My abundant sweat glands were busily coping with cooling a body that was trying to adjust to an air temperature that was higher than its own. But according to Elaine Morgan, an anthropologist interested in the evolution of the sweat gland, something more was going on. As a result of our past marine period these sweat glands evolved to protect me from “a harsh salt environment,” and, “did not, perhaps evolve as a method for dissipating heat, but as a method for dissipating salt.” Licking my skin at that moment would be the proof.
I started with an interest in materials, one in particular, salt. I had decided to go back to university for an art degree and wanted to develop an art project that looked at the effect of synthetic toxic materials on human health and the environment. This led me to salt, a relatively simple material, and one of the oldest healing substances humans have used. I was also drawn to salt because it is the foundation for life, from our primordial past in a briny ocean to our fetal beginnings in the salty milk of amniotic fluid. Salt is a mineral and not organic but I mimicked the organic by growing and nurturing diaphanous crystals on created and found objects. Trespassing these boundaries between organic and inorganic, and between microscopic and macroscopic, salt became both my main material and metaphor in my artworks from that point on. A couple of years after that I was invited to work with a developmental biologist and butoh performer to create an installation for a science, art and dance festival, Shared Habitat 2 (2002), and this collaboration furthered the intersections of my artwork with themes from science, particularly new developments in biology.
Incorporating live bacteria into my artwork came about because I was researching and investigating the history of pandemics, the rise of infectious disease brought on by global warming, and the natural history of microbial life on earth. With a research grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (2009), I took the first steps in setting up a laboratory in my studio and learned how to culture the salt bacteria Halobacterium sp. NRC-1. With a microscope and digital camera, I photographed the growth of the brightly coloured colonies and then used the images in installations, or displayed the actual petri dishes with halobacteria as live drawings. Over the past years many of my installations and exhibits continue to draw on the beauty of live halobacteria.
LHG: Can you expand on the idea behind your installation SHIVER?
EW: Shiver is an exhibit of mixed media artworks that turns fear--fear of the viral, of the microbial, and of impending pandemics--into beauty.
An ‘organism’, entitled Shiver, hangs from the ceiling glimmering with grown salt crystals and red ‘mutations’. Erupting but tentacled to an oversized floor-bound photo representation of a petri dish, Shiver is comprised of over 2,300 petri dishes, salt, pipette tips, fishing wire and wool. Capturing light in its crystal prisms, the piece responds with a slight shiver in response to viewers passing close or air currents moving through it.
The exhibit also includes a series of wall mounted salt encrusted grids with red lines rising and falling. Based on Ebola statistics from Western Africa, United States and Canada, these abstract graphs, with their matrix of glittering crystals and leached rust and copper, announce the barrage of cases and the shocking death toll experienced over this last year.
Other works in the exhibit include a stop-motion animation and digital photo series, entitled Screened For. Each image is a stark portrayal of me wearing a protective mask originally painted with a deadly infectious disease. Confronted by my direct gaze or closed eyes, viewers are is asked to question whether the very devices we employ for protection actually keep us safe when faced with the increasing incidences of epidemics.
Ultimately Shiver asks viewers to consider that fear and beauty reside in an uncomfortable dialectic, especially in this precarious time of contagions and bioterrors, more often imagined than real.
LHG: What are you hoping viewers take from your work?
EW: Hopefully, my work will move them to question or even come to terms with their fears of microbes and infection. Microbes constitute who we and are a fundamental part of us. If the context of my artwork can lessen the fear by embedding it psychologically as beauty in the viewer, that would be great. What is happening in the fields of microbiology and ecological studies is transforming so much of what we know about life-forms, it needs to be explored in all kinds of ways, including in the visual arts.
LHG: What are your future artistic plans?
EW: I have a number of projects I am looking forward to researching and constructing in the studio. The first is a longer term project that involves the notion of porosity and the vulnerability of the body. The work will revolve around a family experience with an infectious disease, tuberculosis. My mother contracted TB in her early 20s and lived in a sanitorium for over two years, experiencing the controversial healing regimes used to treat TB in the 1940s. With this new work I will incorporate her story and experience aesthetically in an installation that situates itself in the idea of air as an emanation or miasma of disease and infections.
The second project I am currently working on is an artwork for the Red Head Gallery’s 25th anniversary group exhibit that will take place in December this year (2015). This piece is in response to a 1991 print by Ed Pien, an established Toronto and international artist, and one of the early Red Head collective members. After creating this artwork Ed will, in return, respond to it by creating a new piece. All three works will be shown (with the rest of the collective members who are doing the same with their chosen early member), in a celebratory exhibit.
I am excited by a couple of other exhibits lined up over the next twelve months. This fall my Screened For digital image series will be shown in a group art and science show, entitled Compendium, at the Islip Art Museum on Long Island. And next year in the fall artworks from my exhibit Ambient Plagues will be shown in Edmonton, Alberta at Harcourt House.
Another event I am very much looking forward to this fall is the launch of William Myers new book, BioArt: Altered Realities, published by Thames & Hudson. It will contain a number of my bioart works as well as many other amazing contemporary artists. All of the artists highlighted in this book “respond to the new, often invisible and dislocating realities revealed by the advance of the life sciences. As areas of study including biomedicine, ecology and synthetic biology rapidly develop our shared notions of identity, the definition of life and our relationship to the environment are shifting.”
Digital photo series entitled Screened for Ebola, Screened for SARS, etc. The above image depicts Cholera
5 salt encrusted grids, wool, monofilament . Data visualization depicting graphs/statistics of cases& deaths of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, U.S. and Canada at beginning of March
photo by: David Williams
SHIVER, Grown salt crystals, 2300 petri dishes, pipette tips, monofilament, wool, wire, vinyl photo image (detail below)