Random precision. Countless intimate acts.

Helen Pynor is an Australian visual artist who works at the intersection between art and the life sciences. She has degrees in both cell and molecular biology, and the visual arts, and holds a cross-disciplinary PhD from the Sydney College of Arts. She works with photography, video, sculpture and performance to explore ideas surrounding human and animal bodies, and disease. In this exclusive interview she discusses her collaborative project with Dr Iris Salecker at the Francis Crick Institute, London

Helen Pynor holding-wax model of adult fruit fly brain. (Credit: Ben Gilbert. Wellcome. 2017)

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Helen Pynor: I’m an artist whose practice explores ontologies of life, often through explorations of ambiguous zones and by undertaking unexpected acts of ‘retrieval’. I began my training in the biological sciences, obtaining a Bachelor of Science (1st Class Hons) in cell and molecular biology, before going on to Sydney College of the Arts to obtain a Bachelor of Visual Arts in photography, sculpture and installation. In 2009 I completed a practice-based PhD that drew together my practice as an artist with my interests in the life and biomedical sciences, drawing on scientific, cultural theory and visual art sources. Since 2009 I have lived and worked in London and Sydney, before that I was based in Sydney and, for a period of time, Paris.

RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?

HP: My practice has consistently explored the materiality of human and non-human bodies, and philosophically ambiguous zones such as the life-death boundary and the inter-subjective nature of organ transplantation. I frequently collaborate with scientists and clinicians in the realisation of my projects, as well as members of the community whose embodied experiences connect with the themes of my work. My practice spans large-scale installations through to small intimate works, using photography, sculpture, video, media art, wet biology and performance.

In a recent work ‘The End is a Distant Memory’ I explored the ambiguity of the life-death boundary through chicken cells that remain alive in supermarket chicken meat, days after the supposed ‘death’ of the bird. I extracted and tissue-cultured living chicken fibroblast cells from a piece of chicken meat I bought at a supermarket, then maintained the cell line in culture for 3 months. The work also explored other transitional zones such as the shift from animal to meat, and subject to object, as well as human near-death experiences. The final work is presented as a series of videos, photographs and objects, and speaks to the indefinable edges of life and death, positing a kind of life within death.

In an earlier work ‘The Body is a Big Place’ I collaborated with artist Peta Clancy to explore the ambiguous life-death boundary in the context of organ transplantation, and the nature of the relationships between organ donors and recipients. In this work we reanimated to a beating state pig hearts obtained from an abattoir, and worked with members of an organ transplant community in Melbourne in a performative work in the deep end of a swimming pool.

RB: Can you say something about your Deconstructing Patterns commission and what it involves?

HP: Over the summer and autumn of 2017 I was based in the lab of Dr Iris Salecker, a Crick Institute scientist studying the development of the visual circuit in Drosophila melanogaster. I shadowed the experimental work of the lab, used some of their imaging tools, and had long and fascinating conversations in particular with Iris and one of her PhD students, Emma Powell, to understand the scientific story the lab is engaged with. Out of these experiences I developed visual and material responses that focused on aspects of the lab’s work that most intrigued me.

Adult fruit fly optic lobe with Flybow labelled neurons. (Dafni Hadjieconomou, 2011. Salecker lab MCR National Institute for Medical Research).

RB: What questions do you want to address in this collaboration that could not be addressed before?

HP: My prior practice had explored ambiguous transitional zones such as the life-death boundary and in a more recent project ‘Fallen’, the ambiguous beginnings of life.

The ‘Deconstructing Patterns’ commission afforded me an opportunity to explore another fascinating transformational space, that of metamorphosis. Metamorphosis consists of a series of unfolding events that entail extraordinary biological intricacy, complexity and virtuosity, almost to the point of implausibility, which remain deeply mysterious even as scientists uncover the molecular basis for particular details of the process. The Salecker lab are engaged with describing and understanding some of the detailed events taking place as nerve and glial cells feel their way through darkened spaces, looking for molecular and cellular correlates and companions in the developing fly brain. It’s an exquisitely intricate sculptural event. My response consisted of layered opaque, translucent and transparent photographic images depicting literal and metaphorical aspects of fly metamorphosis, suspended from the ceiling of the Crick exhibition space,

In another work I explore the presence of the scientist’s body, in this case Iris’ body, in the practice and communication of their work – the way gesture comes to fill in the gap between language and meaning in this highly spatial scientific story. This work emerged during the many conversations I had with Iris, in which she attempted to explain the complexity of the developing fly brain. I often found myself tuning out of her words and becoming absorbed in the beauty and precision of her hand and arm gestures, which seemed to speak much more directly to this sculptural story. I made a video work in which her hands and arms emerge from a blackened space as she describes in detail the developmental events of the Drosophila visual circuit. The video is shown without sound, allowing us to focus on the beauty and surprising precision of this unfolding choreography.

I also made sculptural models of fly brains at different developmental stage, in wax, as a way to understand the 3D nature of these transformational events, and referencing the long history of anatomical wax models.

Helen Pynor: Random precision. Countless intimate acts, 2017. Photographic prints, acrylic lights, stainless steel (Photo: Helen Pynor).

Helen Pynor: Random precision. Countless intimate acts, 2017. Photographic prints, acrylic lights, stainless steel (Photo: Helen Pynor).

RB: What have you personally learnt from working in this collaboration and has this approach thrown up any surprises for you in regards to your previously held beliefs or intuitions?

HP: The collaboration deepened and extended my appreciation of the mysterious nature and unfathomable complexity of the transformational events of metamorphosis. It took me full circle, as for years from the age of 7 I’d wanted to be an entomologist, and I embarked on a career in biology before my developing interests in art took over. To be back with insects was almost a revisit to childhood and that endless fascination with the intriguing worlds inside tiny bodies.

The imaging tools used by the lab were a revelation to me. They somehow marry the analytical needs of a lab in the 21st century when such detailed molecular precision is possible and necessary, with an astonishingly beautiful aesthetic language. The aesthetics are always regarded as secondary to the analysis, and yet I find it fascinating that these aesthetics lie embedded quite harmoniously and seemingly productively within the analytical processes. I was also struck by the artworks hanging on the wall of Iris’ study, beautiful works in print and embroidery made by Iris herself, depicting aspects of the developmental process of the fly eye.

The video work I made with Iris was the first time I’d brought the body of a scientist into a performative process, allowing me to marry my scientific interests with my interests in using other bodies in performative ways to explore experiential and philosophical questions.

These works and observations touched on a broader interest of mine in the embodied or ‘situated’ nature of scientific practice, the way scientific practice does not take place in some rarified, abstracted universe where the observers (the scientists) have a disinterested clinical distance from their subject. Rather, the love of scientists for their subject, the presence of their own bodies in dialogue with the bodies they study, and in the case of this lab, their aesthetic sensitivity, are all layered into their research work, even in unspoken ways.

Helen Pynor: one element of ‘Random precision. Countless intimate acts’, 2017. Photographic prints, acrylic lights, stainless steel (Photo: Helen Pynor).

Helen Pynor: one element of ‘Random precision. Countless intimate acts’, 2017. Photographic prints, acrylic lights, stainless steel (Photo: Helen Pynor).

Helen Pynor: one element of ‘Random precision. Countless intimate acts’, 2017. Photographic prints, acrylic lights, stainless steel (Photo: Helen Pynor).

RB: Philosophically there is a debate about pattern as an external phenomenon to be discerned in the world against the idea that humans impose pattern on experience in order to make sense of it. What are your thoughts on this debate?

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