Snakes and Ladders
Sally Annett: Do you believe in reincarnation?
Suzanne Anker: I don’t believe in reincarnation in a religious sense, but I think we are part of a ‘molecular data bank’ into which everything gets broken down and re-grouped.
I am interested in the way that science is replacing religion as a patron for the arts.
Its true. I remember speaking to Watson, as in Watson and Crick, in 2003 when there were many exhibitions surrounding the deciphering of the human genome and the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA. I asked him how he felt about the art addressing DNA and he replied, ‘Well that makes sense since every religion produces its own coterie of significant art!’ His take was very similar; that science is the new religion in some ways. That’s been the case for a while though; there was a profound backlash against positivism, particularly after the turn of the 20th century.
In some ways, science is a cultural product. In the US, “science” is big business. A host of drugs are being marketed by pharmaceutical companies and TV ads are bringing such compounds into the consumer’s home. People have somehow integrated these substances into their lives, infiltrated through mega media and persuasive marketing campaigns.
I was discussing, with the historian Rowena Willard-Wright, the idea that it is ‘thought’ which is still the driving factor behind all social systems, whether it be the architecture of the abbey, the tube train systems or the natural order/obedience of the users; spotting patterns and then building systems from them seems the key factor. Whether it is a religious system or a scientific or a social system, it still requires language and its development, to actually have real world outcomes, the acknowledgement that it is still ‘mind’ which has developed this as well.
It’s true that there are many marvellous and fantastic places, which is undeniable. Whether visiting the Vatican, or similarly, going into a scientific lab or an artist’s studio, they are all specialised environments.
What stimulated your initial interest in science?
This is compelling question. As a child I couldn’t decide whether I was going to become a scientist or an artist. I always wanted a satisfying understanding of the living world, to know how it works. I eventually decided to be an artist.
I didn’t connect nature and science (in my own work) until 1988. One critical moment occurred when I was working with kaleidoscopes and recording their images as photographs. Some pictures seemed to be cellular. They were representative of instrumentalised images as we know them via microscopes and other lenses. My work then took a decidedly conceptual turn.
Leonardo Da Vinci said, that studying science made him a better artist.
Form and symbol, which is most important to you in your work?
Symbols are forceful, compelling, but so is aesthetic judgment. My work is intended to naturally entice the viewer into an observational stance. There are several key forms in my work, especially foetal forms. I do have one child and one grandchild, and we all share the same face; our faces are the same! And this seed, the foetus, is the basis for all human life… it’s a very emotionally charged subject…
We tend to anthropomorphize everything, and viewing some of the pictures of fetuses in the womb, our imaginations overlay meanings upon them; sucking their thumbs, or, if they are twins, watching how they interact with one another. It’s all very enticing in a magical way. It renders us curious about how we come to be. We can assert, ‘ok it’s the natural world’, but with all of the interventions that are going on in reproduction and reproductive science, it’s strange and quite fascinating. And things are changing fast. I’ve been doing some work engaging in the molecular cloning of plants; plants are now “constructed ” and can be reproduced using any part of the plant itself. It is now unnecessary to grow plants from seeds. It’s really intriguing to note that they are mass-produced in factories similar to other consumer products and are even patented. It’s difficult to ascertain what their long-term impact will be. It’s like something from science fiction writing of the 1930’s, and like something from Margaret Atwood’s current novels.
Science fiction writing always seems to be about 50 years ahead. I have been looking at botanists from earlier centuries, like John Wray and Roxburgh, Haeckel and thinking about curating a show around contemporary botanical and anatomical illustrations, or their equivalents.
The contemporary German artist Rosemarie Trockel is exhibiting a project titled ‘Cosmos’ at the New Museum in NYC. What she has done is to borrow various kinds of specimens and prints, which served as inspiration for some of her work. She has accomplished a significant feat in organizing this format and I think it may be a new direction for exhibition practices. It’s a shame that your wonderful Helen Chadwick is no longer with us. Anthropologist Sarah Franklin is at Cambridge now and is very interested in work of this nature.
Are you influenced by any particular philosopher or philosophy?
Aristotle. But I admire the work of German philosopher Nicole Karafyllis, who coined the term ‘Biofact. ‘ The word describes a biologically created artefact, and gives name to all the entities created or ‘born’ in a lab. Such creatures are a mixture of biology and artefact.
Also, Art Historian Barbara Stafford, and in a Postmodernist vein, Lyotard, but also writers like Martin Kemp and Donna Haraway; Their work has had significant impact. Also, some historical figures: Darwin, Haeckel and Mendel to name a few.
Have poetry and literature been an influence in your work?
Yes, Margaret Atwood, and the poems of Emily Dickenson. I have found her poetry and thinking possess a magical swoon. I could not believe how closely some of her poems related to the work I was producing. That is a sort of imaginative thinking. Particular writers also include Walt Whitman and Bruce Sterling.
Artists: Max Ernst and surrealism, the bio-morphism of the 1940’s and contemporary artists working with the natural world. There is a kind of neo-romanticism present around work that deals with the natural world, even though it hasn’t been termed as such. In contemporary art, for example, Anselm Kiefer, Marc Quinn, Damien Hirst, Pierre Huyghe and even Werner Herzog’s recent films. A lot of bio artwork is a reinterpretation of a neo-romanticism that is just possibly a partial antidote to consumer culture.
Is there an inherent selection process in your choice of subject? Do you think that this process has altered throughout your career, or do some of the fundamental intellectual choices, themes and compositions repeat – as if they have a core personal resonance to/with you?
As I have said; I am fascinated with foetal forms, the unborn child. To give birth and to understand how we can go from being a seed, to becoming fully formed becomes an emotionally charged subject. And like death, remains a gateway to and from things unknown. Some things we will never know. The devices we employ to magnify sight also intrigue me. We can never really know what we are observing. That is also quite magical. How do we come to be?
The karyotype forms you use in creating your work could be interpreted as religious and scientific, as well as archetypically symbolic. Does your work have a religious aspect?
In my ‘DNA’, pieces? When I first viewed chromosomes, they astounded me. When I encountered karyotypes I thought I struck gold. They uncovered a direct connection to the language of the body, the way the body “writes” itself, and the complications of its evolution as a language system. Chromosomes evolved billions of years ago. In Greek the chromosome means ‘coloured body’. Looking at these microscopic entities, which are essentially bio archives on the scale of minutia, are an encyclopaedia of what has happened over time and geography. These signs resonated with me because it was the first hereditary aspect that could actually be viewed. They are related to life and its reproductive powers while amino acids and electrons are just far too abstract. I do not perceive religious symbolism in them at all; However I do recognize them as embedded alphabetic forms.
It seemed to me to point to us having an internal experience of language and subsequently to concepts of ritual and religiosity that were hardwired into our DNA, again fascinating to me as a flexible concept.
I believe, when talking about ideas concerning ‘God’ or religion, we need to know which ‘God’ we are referring to? I think that in human nature there exists, collectively such questions. Questions like, ‘Why am I here’? ‘What am I expected to do?’ ‘What is my life about?’ And that there is a projected search for a model that may give some answers, but I am not a religious person, I am an atheist. That does not mean that I am not a spiritual person. I do believe in the powers of the natural world and the whole molecular dynamic of the universe as the ultimate system of which I am part.
There does appear to a global need to attach that responsibility to an external deity or pantheon and it is of great interest to me why we do this and to explore the physical and neurological root of this phenomenon.
I think part of it is and I don’t want to sound negative, but part of the role of religion is as a political controller. It brings people together and keeps them under its spell. Potentially religion distracts the masses from the “horror” of realizing they will die, or of their pathetic lives, so it soothes like a placebo. It’s riveting to see the kind of culture wars going on between the Western world and some of its Middle Eastern counterparts, in which religion becomes a pivotal cause. What is happening there is akin to what unfolded in Europe during the middle ages.
The history of religion shows that it is a political body that continually disrupts societies. It also distracts society from the condition of mortality. It is cultural warfare. In the Western sphere it has material causes. Humanity has a general need to make sense of it all, and there is a sensibility towards thinking on elevated planes. Religion attempts to provide a narrative or platform for this. It is a sequence of modes of expression employed as a transitional organizational tool.
And I think trying to make sense of all this is an essential part of our life’s work. We are lucky, we get to formulate these questions.
In that sense, the gallery setting for showing ‘art’ is almost a complete construct, or ‘lab’ space. There are a lot of ‘sci/art’ [I know we all dislike the term], pieces in science environments, as well as art in university campuses, many projects are university led, but I have met scientists who are asking for help from artists, with the communication of their work to the public; to communicate better what they are doing and generate understanding. There is still that need for a symbiosis.
As for mass communication, ‘art’ is not superior to any other communication domain, since it is such a specific paradigm with a trans historical language. The general public is not prepared to just walk into a contemporary art gallery and comprehend what is going on. I am very pleased that all of these “sci/art” events are happening, but its not about mass communication or translation of scientific information for the public. It’s about a social situation, which allows people to develop, or describe, and discuss ideas they are working on with a view to altering life. That wouldn’t happen in laboratories but it would happen at art exhibitions. But it’s not about the literal translation of a visually oriented scientific experience to the public. It is social dynamics that are at play.
That’s very interesting, some interviewees privately have spiritual beliefs that they will not express publicly, but have also complained about the exclusiveness of language within arts, science and religion, that it is designed to exclude and intimidate as well as to construct entire worlds.
Absolutely. How did you get involved in the religious dimension?
It struck me when comparing the oldest Western alphabets with the karyotypes that if the genome is the blueprint of all of life on the planet including our own, than that must encompass all spiritual and metaphysical aspects as well. That at some level our genome generates our consciousness and our creativity and our need [or not] to believe in an external paternalistic force or ‘god’. That this is internally triggered and that this comes form a need to recognise and understand pattern and language
Brilliant! I have had that experience as well, and I think that there is a much more work to be done in this area and perhaps religion is a prickly term to employ.
Another ongoing problem with the research is defining the terms for discussion ideas around metaphysics and consciousness.
Correct and there are words, like ‘creativity’ which need to be examined as well. They are over used or overlaid with so much diverse meaning. However, there are parts within these theories and traditions, which are absolutely necessary to conserve. But others, should just be simply abandoned. The context of practically everything requires fresh examining.
I worked for several years curating and siting temporary arts pieces in large public spaces and buildings most notably the shopping centres in Milton Keynes, which are amongst the biggest in the UK and found that I could site very difficult pieces in that environment, because it was perceived by the public as a very safe space. So that they could therefore deal with quite difficult conceptual or abstract artworks.
I don’t think this has been done in the US, and it would be fascinating to witness how the US public would react to work like this. It’s quite intriguing. For example, a significant portion of the general public believe in angels, miracles and creationism, and some of your questions would get distinctly different answers.
Another fascination of mine is the rise of fundamentalist religion and ideas at a time when scientific advance, is presenting us with information about ourselves, and the universe, which is unparalleled, it is such a striking paradox. A lot of people are able maintain contradictory belief systems, and you are unusual among those interviewed in that you don’t, your answers are very consistent, with the exception of the last two questions, regarding the human soul and reincarnation.
That is only because on molecular and scientific levels I accept the redistribution of energy and matter. I don’t know what residue remains or where it circulates.
Our genome almost provides a modern day allegory of reincarnation which we would have once laughed at along with ancestor worship, with a new layer of life added on with each inherited set of our forebears, we are our ancestors, and each generation is technically older than the next. The anthropological fascinations do not mutually exclude, it is the parable or metaphor used to describe them is very different.
It is as I have said with my daughter and my granddaughter. We all have similar faces. I can see myself in both of them and it is marvelous and fascinating. Do you have children?
I have three children. None of them look immediately facially like me, but we can match body parts, so my son and second daughter have the same feet! But mannerism and behavior patterns to me seem to be influenced much more by sibling position. How has your gender impacted upon your work?
Gender automatically impacts my work due to the nature of its iconography. I don’t consider myself a feminist, but I do consider myself feminine. The nature of my work, especially around the foetus leads me into territory covered by feminism. This can be startling. Consideration of the foetus, its’ rights, versus the mothers’ rights is painful and difficult. In addition, it raises questions about the degree of intervention by science in society and the ethical questions it raises. Gender poses obstacles…
If you were asked to create a universal visual alphabet how would you begin to go about this?
I would begin by investigating all of the primitive languages extant in the world, discovering crossovers of similar signs and sounds. I would then begin to assemble a very simple alphabet and subsequent language employing an algorhythmic software program.
Leave the rest to chance.
Interview by Sally Annett