The University of Melbourne
HyperPrometheus: The Legacy of Frankenstein, 20 October-23 December 2018, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA)
In the tales of Prometheus, the original myth and Mary Shelley’s nineteen-century novel Frankenstein, there lies a warning: a reckoning on how to wield power and knowledge. The art exhibition HyperPrometheus, presented by PICA in partnership with the University of Western Australia’s SymbioticA, echoes this warning. In a world where biotechnological experimentations are no longer science fiction, this exhibition re-contextualises Frankenstein, amassing works in different mediums by 19 artists, from a whirring, suspended skeletal robot to living human fat cells projected in real time. Its narrative is an ominous and unsettling forecast on the re-shaping of society and humanity, pushing into the spotlight the questions these new technologies have occasioned.
Upon entering the darkened room of the exhibition, disembodied heads with blank eyes stare back. Created with 3D printing, these partially constructed faces hang suspended from the ceiling, made poetic in the pattern produced by their silhouettes on the wall and floor behind them. A weird clicking sound resonates around the room, followed by a deep, vibrating bass. The source is unclear, despite it being a vast room. The experience of moving through the space is like walking through Frankenstein’s lab itself: full of filthy creations, dark and separate from the outside world. The uncanny permeates every corner: the familiar has been manipulated, defamiliarised. Sculptures of human bodies lie still with dogs’ heads replacing their own; a photo of a calm forest is disturbed by the presence of sea-like anemones bulging from bark. One might expect the variety in artists and mediums to be overwhelming or distracting. However, it is this lab-like atmosphere of disjunction that creates unity. The works, too, are distanced from one another; your footsteps echo through the empty space as you tread across the floorboards, peering through the dark, to get to the next experiment. The isolation of the space and the eerie exhibits make you feel as though you have truly entered some sort of surreal, twisted world separate from the busy streets of the city surrounding you.
The accompanying exhibition text explains that scientific forays into bioelectricity during the nineteenth century were both research and a form of entertainment. The exhibition self-consciously reproduces this sort of synthesis of art and science. The artworks, like the novel, provoke the imagination and macabre fascination to critique scientific progress unchecked by conscience. A screen plays a film of headless, dissected frogs in a laboratory, twitching from electric pulses. But after putting on the accompanying headphones this experiment becomes horrifyingly incongruous: the convulsing of the dead frogs becomes a dance, the electric shots making them pulse in time to an upbeat music track.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tapped into its society’s anxieties around scientific progress. The discovery of the unseen and uncontrollable force of electricity drove scientific discoveries that tested the boundaries between human and non-human, living and artificial, concepts that seem even more pertinent in today’s society, with developments in artificial intelligence and gene manipulation. The experimental and biological artworks in this exhibition embrace life and death simultaneously, cumulatively articulating the inner fears and horrors that biomedical and synthetic life produce in a society that still fears change.
HyperPrometheus is a resounding echo of warning to the dangers of human playing god, and the uncertainty that lies behind the facade of progress. The hanging faces from the opening are pointing out the inaccuracies of DNA profiling, depicting the way diverse faces can emerge from the same strand of DNA, decoded as data and presented as conclusive fact. Behind a curtain, a video installation bewilders: fluffy chickens walking through a gothic forest landscape, oddly juxtaposed. Then one of the chickens opens its beak, and the disturbing metallic vibrations that echoed around you earlier have replaced its squawk. This evokes the disturbing genetic mutations that may exist in a post-nuclear world. The permeation of this sound throughout the exhibition is constantly unsettling: first because you do not know its source, and then because of the jarring amalgamation of nature and technology.
The concepts explored in these works, and throughout the exhibition, are compounded and advanced testaments to Frankenstein. Adapted for a modern audience and to fit evolving technologies, it is revealing that this science fiction novel written in the nineteenth-century still resonates so strongly. Despite the disturbing nature of the works, you remain transfixed. These displays of “science” compel you to stop and consider if this is a world you want to inhabit one day, acting as the warning of Frankenstein that urges control over technology and caution in employment of scientific discoveries; visually presenting the moral dilemmas we face so readily in today’s biotechnological age. Captivatingly morbid, the exhibition forces on you the very question that the novel forced on its readers: at what point does transgressing the boundary between nature and science create something monstrous?
The University of Melbourne