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Metamorphoses

 

Intermingling of human and nonhuman bodies.

Metamorphoses are processes of inner and outer transformation, in which bodies from human, animal, vegetal, sea and mineral realms merge and mutate.

Metamorphoses was an artistic research project developed through writing, a workshop series and a digital exhibition. With a strong focus on senses, perception and materiality, it reflected on metamorphosis as a concept and its potential to open up an alternative to dualistic worldviews, seeing the Earth as a vibrant landscape of ever-changing shapes.

Image credits: Vilma Luostarinen, The Wellcome Collection

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The installation took place at the Wellcome Collection in October 2015, in collaboration with artist Louise Waite and designer Alison Taylor. It was a part of the event What is potential? Exploring Aristotle, art and medicine, with several installations, performances and talks, revolving around Aristotle and the concept of potentiality.

The installation was designed to look like an abstract dinner table, where materials and fragments were composed. At both sides, there was a chair and a pair of headphones with the sound. On the one side, there was a folder with the research fragments. On the other side, there was the kinetic sand for the visitor to touch and knead. The central part of the experience was the tactile experience in combination with the sound. Hearing, seeing and touching was combined into one single, intrasensory experience.  

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How is potentiality connected with metamorphoses? Three texts and a series of images became key inspiration sources: a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses about the creation of the universe, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre and the Plague describing a process of decay of the human body, and one text about how Bachelard imagines kneading as a an act of investing time and energy into matter. 

The “crude, unstructured mass” of Ovid seemed similar to the black fluids and gallstones that Artaud vividly describes. The text about kneading inspired the tactile experience with the sand. Symbols and concepts from the research fragments took shape. Charcoal bread looked just as stones, or even meteorites. Salt crystals formed memories from black tsunamis. The egg is a strong symbol for birth and potentiality, as well as alchemical processes of transformation, which suited the installation’s location between the food and alchemy sections of the Wellcome collection reading room. We sculpted a ceramic gallbladder and made dozens of magnetic gallbladder stones. The central character of the installation was the ‘primordial paste’, black kinetic sand – an interpretation of Ovid’s chaotic matter. A part from the materials, Louise created a sound. She recorded me kneading the sand, and then manipulated the recordings into an organic and earthy sound. 

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The digital exhibition balances on the boundary between physical and virtual space. It opens up diverse landscapes of works all bearing traces of transformations. Assembled together, they form a poetic reflection on what the concept of metamorphosis can signify in the 21st century. The project examines and re-imagines how we as human beings relate to matter, both inside and outside our bodies, as well as the potential of metamorphosis to reveal new perspectives, seeing the Earth as a vibrant topography of ever-changing shapes. The digital format of the exhibition has allowed for creative curation and experimentation with how contemporary art and design, physical as well as borndigital, can be experienced online. Metamorphoses has been developed in dialogue with a group of international artists and designers, incorporating workshops and installations in London, Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Brighton and Bristol.

Metamorphoses
Any shape that is formed is constantly shifting

Exhibition text by Vilma Luostarinen

The caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly, Ovid’s classical myths and Franz Kafka’s novel about a man’s alteration into a state of estrangement – metamorphosis is a well-known phenomenon in nature as well as in mythology, art and literature. But what does it mean today and what makes it relevant to the 21st century? Environmental journalist Gaia Vince writes that in just one generation, humans have turned into a global force, altering the Earth ‘beyond anything it has experienced in its 4.5 billion-year history’.[1] From relentless exploitation and industrial processes where natural resources are transformed into commodities, to oceans of plastic waste, extreme weather and collapsing ecosystems; it appears as if the whole planet, including the human species, is in a state of unprecedented transformation. Metamorphoses have turned from distant myth to present reality, with as yet unforeseen consequences.

In his book Return to Nature? An Ecological Counterhistory, political theorist Fred Dallmayr suggests that the current sense of crisis has its roots in the ‘onset of Western modernity and its attendant separation of ‘man’ and nature’.[2] At the forefront of this development was the 17th century philosopher René Descartes. In his thinking, the material world is inferior to the human mind, and matter seen as ‘devoid of interiority or ontological depth [...] it is inert stuff emptied of all immanent vitality’.[3] From a Cartesian dualism perspective, nature, matter, animality, death, even our own flesh and senses, are seen as something ‘other’ different from ‘us’. Author and social activist Naomi Klein in a recent lecture on climate change said that ‘once the other has been firmly established, the ground is softened for any transgression: violent expulsion, land theft, occupation, invasion. Because the whole point of othering is that the other doesn’t have the same rights [...] as those making the distinction.’[4]

It is urgent to develop a new sensibility for the material world and to rethink our position within nature towards what political theorist Jane Bennett explains as ‘a more horizontal representation of the relation between human and nonhuman actants’.[5] In this view, the hierarchy between the dualisms has shifted – matter is no longer conceived as merely a resource for humans to consume and endow with meaning, but recognised as active and agential.

Imagined as a self-transformative force innate to all materials and beings, could metamorphosis act as a conceptual point of departure for such new mindsets to take form? Ovid in his Metamorphoses touches on this vital agency:

‘My vessel is launched on the boundless main and my sails are spread to the wind! In the whole of the world there is nothing that stays unchanged. All is in flux. Any shape that is formed is constantly shifting.' [6]

By its very nature, metamorphosis rejects dualist structures and opens up an alternative possibility of seeing the world as a vibrant and heterogeneous landscape of ever-changing shapes.

The creation and experience of art are doubtlessly processes of transformation. But what is the relationship between human and nonhuman bodies in creative practices, where materials inevitably become mediums for artists’ thoughts and actions? Theorists Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt in Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ Through the Arts propose that the artistic process may even be understood as amplifying the mind-matter bifurcation, since ‘matter is the ‘dumb’ ‘mute’ ‘irrational’ stuff on which humans act’.[7] However, they further argue that art can likewise be seen as a form of ‘co-collaboration’ between human and nonhuman actors, where ‘matter as much as the human has responsibility for the emergence of art.[8]

It is against the background of these thoughts and ideas that this project has unfolded. The digital exhibition has grown out of a year-long process of material and sensory experimentation, where metamorphosis has been investigated both as a concept related to present ecological transformations, and as a curatorial and artistic method. With a poetic approach, the ambition of the project has been to explore and reimagine how we as human beings conceive and relate to the material world, outside and inside of our bodies. How can we learn (or rather unlearn) how to listen and develop a heightened awareness for the vital agency of matter?

Bennett suggests that we should start treating nonhumans, such as animals, plants, artefacts and commodities, more carefully and with a greater attention and fascination, ‘as clues to the material vitality [we] share with them.’[9] To explore these strange connections and allow for a dialogue to take form between ‘us’ and ‘other’ bodies, we need to start from within and return to the most basic language we know; that of our own bodies. Through sensorial and intuitive forms of interaction, that are perhaps closer to childhood, we can discover feelings, vibrations, and experiences for which we have no words. There is nothing magical or extraordinary about this ‘language’, but it is hidden in spaces in-between interior and exterior, mind and matter, human and nonhuman body.

Between October 2015-February 2016, a series of five workshops and installations were developed together with a group of international artists and designers. The investigations took place in London (Wellcome Collection), Gothenburg (House of Words/GIBCA), Copenhagen (The Reading School), Brighton (Onca Centre for Arts and Ecology) and Bristol (Redcliffe Caves). Without a clear idea of where the journey would end, the collaborative process moved the project, not necessarily forward, but in multiple directions.

Not only is it about metamorphosis, but the project itself has been in a constant state of transformation. This approach resulted in a complex network of materials, things, people, ideas, spaces and situations, which later gave birth to the idea of curating a digital assemblage where both previous collaborators and further artists and designers were invited to participate with new or existing works.