Sunday, 31 March 2013

The artist as pseudo-scientist: Phillipa Jones

These are some of the "specimens" in MIRIAD: a flying fox and trifle jellyfish

For the third time since it opened on March 16th, I have been to Phillipa Jones' exhibition at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery.  I rarely visit a show on multiple occasions but this time I felt like I had no choice:  I was that intrigued.

Yes, I am there because I am writing about the show – a review for C magazine.  But the real reason is because I am trying to answer a nagging question in my brain.  "Why do artists adopt the guise of scientific inquiry and use the mock scientific institution as a mode of artistic expression?"  MIRIAD stands for the Ministry of Intuitive Research in Imagined and Actual Discoveries, which is an institution fabricated by Jones.  She uses the pseudo- institution as an artistic device and part of her narrative that posits the discovery of an island off the coast of Newfoundland, which, due to the most recent Ice Age, is home to a collection of unique and endangered, or extinct creatures.  Jones then took members of the public– equipped them with the guise of experts­­ such as a cartographer, anthropologist, or more fancifully plant whisperer and shaman– on an expedition to this island.  These expeditions are sampled as scenarios for the "mock-umentary" video in the exhibition.

It seems to me that the adoption of scientific institutions is actually part of a growing trend in art practice and I am not sure what it means.  Is it to acquire legitimacy - the kind that we normally accord science?  Is it meant to expand the role of art in society?  Is it a parody?  Is it a search for aesthetics or an expression of a sensibility?

This is a portion of an epic pen & ink drawing by Jones' it is a tour de force.

And then there is the whole adoption of scientific technology as a tool in and of itself.  I am thinking about, say the use of medical imaging as a device.  There are a growing number of artists who use CAT scans, X-rays and MRIs of bodies, sometimes but not always their own.  But I think this is built on the foundation of earlier artists who were intrigued by machines, robots and technology in general.  And let's not forget those artists like Stellarc, who use their own bodies in combination with machines as performance art.

The first artist I thought of is Mireille Peron, who is based at the Alberta College of Art & Design.  She straddles art and craft camps and is the founder of the Laboratory of Feminist Pataphysics (2000).  I reached out to her to get her informed opinion on this question.  This is an excerpt from her response:

It is always nice to hear from you and what you are up too. It was a pleasure to
discover the work of Phillipa. Indeed very interesting and quite in the realm of
my Laboratory of Feminist Pataphysics! I could see why you thought of me : )
At the beginning of the 20th century, Alfred Jarry invented and described the
indiscipline of ‘pataphysics as the science of imaginary solutions. Like its
companion —real physics— ‘pataphysics remains a predominantly male domain.  It was to remedy this evident lack, that I founded in 2000 (to celebrate the
millennium) the Laboratory of Feminist Pataphysics. Feminist pataphisicists like
to think of their work as the reinvention of normative science through gendered
fictive narratives. Pataphysics is the science of the particular, despite the
common opinion that the only science is that of the general. Feminist
Pataphysics like Jarry’s pataphysics’ examines the laws governing exceptions,
and explains a universe supplementary to this one, a pluriverse where exceptions
unfold. Its study always includes the games governing the exceptions and
sporadic accident. It seems that MIRIAD fits very well all these criteria.

Mireille Peron's response contained several, insightful paragraphs and succeeded in stirring up my thinking even more.  I will continue to chew away at the possibilities as I work towards my deadline of April 5th.

In the meantime, do go and see MIRIAD if you are in town or at least google Phillipa Jones' website:

The exhibition is a compilation of several things in addition to the video: three glowing, multicoloured circular window panels, exquisite pen and ink drawings, careful watercolour paintings, atmosphere-laden, leather bound notebooks, and fantastic specimens and artifacts that conjure up a Victorian aesthetic reminiscent of the early days of the Royal Society. It is a feast for the eyes and evidence of curator Mireille Eagan's quip that Phillipa is an over-achiever.  Yes, Jones clearly has substantial talent and a work ethic to match.

The show closes April 28th.

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