Replication, adaptation or mutation?
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the studio sofa, tirelessly flicking through a selection of Australian terrestrial television channels. After a few minutes, I finally stopped on the image of an elderly man crouched amongst the flora and forna of the African terrain collecting ants in a small cylindrical glass tube. Shortly accompanied by the familiar narrative tones of Sir David Attenborough, I had stumbled across the latest high definition, cinematic offering from the BBC’s natural history series, Africa.
As I quickly became engrossed in the program, I soon learnt that the elderly gentleman was in fact the world renowned American myrmecologist and social biologist, Edward Wilson. Perhaps most renowned for his sociobiological research charting the origin of animal behaviour from ants to humans and quite often the subject of much controversial debate outside of and amongst the global scientific community, Wilson’s sociobiological enquiry suggests that animal behaviour is governed by epigenetic rules determined by evolutionary theory. As I watched this extraordinary scientific talent carefully cradling a small ant in his frail hands, I began to transfer these ideas of epigenetic behaviour to my own theoretical concerns surrounding social mimicry, adaptation and ultimately, social mutation as defined by popular culture.
In conversation with a friend over the weekend, the subject of the social form and function of public art arose when discussing a sculptural work by Australian artist, Callum Morton. Installed on Melbourne’s Eastlink Freeway and titled ‘Hotel’, the structure is a 12m by 5m concrete, steel and glass descaled replication of a hotel building. Although from a distance, the work appears to inhabit the same reality as ours in terms of perspetive and scale, a closer inspection indicates to the viewer that this is an almost alien structure and one that could not possibly inhabit our reality in any functional space or form. When commenting on the sculpture in a recent article in the Herald Sun, Morton positions the work in a pseudo-theatrical alternate reality and comments: ”In this world things appear in unlikely contexts in oddly de-scaled and altered form, as if they have been pushed down a portal from the recent past and popped out mistakenly in this time and place.”
This wasn’t the first time I had encountered Callum Morton’s work. When invigilating the New Forest Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennial, adjacent to the site I was located at was one of the collateral venues of the Australian Pavilion which played host to Callum Morton’s sculpture Valhalla. A downscaled representation of a once owned family home that was subsequently taken over by property developers, Valhalla is a three dimensional representation of a once proud building now scarred by gun shrapnel, fire and destruction, not as a result of the aftermath of war, but rather as an emotional reaction from the artist having seen his former family home renovated and re-owned.
What marks the social significance of this artwork to me isn’t in the technical skill or architectural ability of the artist, but rather, the alteration and adaptation of the original construction by way of a social and emotional experience. This therefore leads me back to Edward Wilson’s sociobiological perspective on epigenetics and how the direct impact of an external, and in this case, emotional and social factor has ultimately resulted in the evolution and mutation of a physical structural form.
As I continued to assimilate Callum Morton’s work, I began thinking about what we find impressive. What is it that we look for to warrant the validity of an artwork? Certainly for many it may be an admiration of skill and how closely a humanly-rendered image resembles its original, but that being said, in the photo-taking culture that we find ourselves in, it seems that now we actively look for the artist’s hand in the work almost as a reaction to and rejection of the mechanically reproduced image in favour of feeling human resonance and creativity.
Upon my arrival into Australia, as I opened up my laptop and altered my geographic prefences to match the Australian time zone, I was bombarded by advertisements and online references to ‘The Harlem Shake’. An online social meme started in Queensland in the early part of this year, the Harlem Shake refers to an online social meme originally begun by a group of students dressed in a variety of costumes dancing erratically to a piece of electro music of the same title. Within weeks of its initial upload, the video went internationally viral and now there is a plethora of schools, offices and universities which have each created their own interpretation of the dance. Without getting too heavily into the online social phenomena of the internet meme and indeed, of memplexes in general, this is a clear illustration of our desire to no longer admire the accuracy of representation but instead to develop, adapt and inhabit it ourselves, to feel as though there is a way for us to participate and actively contribute to the online global cultural consciousness without fear of ridicule or rejection.
In relation to my own practice and interest in social mimicry I refer to the works of artists such as David Syvester and Pierre Huyge, who, through their reconstruction of the work of culturally significant figures such as David Bowie and Alfred Hitchcock, enhance and mutate the original so that we might be able to preserve and evolve it in a visual and cultural sense.
And so what I take forward from this is an understanding that where we are now is removed from pure representation. Perhaps we are now entering into a new space culturally which is an advanced form of visual evolution, a place where the performative act is a type of epigenetic act in which we are constantly mutating our visual and cultural interpretation of the world around us by way of external social means.