Blood attracts and repels. It fascinates us because we need it; it disgusts us because it carries disease and gushes out of our bodies in unforeseen circumstances. An exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, set out to combine the tools of art and science to explore this tension.
The BLOOD: Attract and Repel exhibition at the Science Gallery Melbourne used multidisciplinary art pieces to provoke scientific curiosity. While science can provide the necessary facts, art can draw the viewer in and provide something tangible to understand and connect with on an emotional level.
Squashed mosquitoes oozing with blood are a sight most of us would be familiar with. Seoul-based photographer Jipil Jung creates his work to find meaning in everyday experiences. The Mums is a series of blood-stained photographs featuring mosquitoes that have feasted on the artist’s own blood. All of these mosquitoes are pregnant females; only expectant mothers feed on blood and it is essential for the growth of their young. Evidently this is a risky endeavour. Jung asks if would we be more receptive to the bite if it didn’t cause irritation, or If the mosquitoes carried something good instead of disease.
The virtual reality experience of John McGhee’s Stroke: Occlusion and Flow allowed viewers to navigate through blood vessels and discover the intricacies of what is happening when someone has a stroke. Created from actual stroke-patient data, Stroke takes the viewer on a journey through the arteries leading to, or within the brain, while experiencing the feeling of engulfment by arterial plaque closing in around them. The experience leaves people dodging and ducking around balls of plaque and red blood cells, peering into the depths of the aortic arch within the heart and returning to reality with a new understanding of the sobering truth about what can happen when we indulge a little too much in life’s luxuries.
Bio Yiluo’s Recycling, a huge fibreglass heart mounted on a traditional Chinese tricycle, a san lun che, has the power to arouse a range of emotions. Conventionally, this rickety tricycle is used for collecting goods to be recycled, paper, cardboard and wood; but what if it were to collect human organs for illegal trade?
A feast for almost all the senses, You Beaut delivers a deliciously provocative encounter with the female reproductive system and menstruation made from cake frosting and sweets, graffitied in a toilet block. Addressing this historically avoided and shamed topic, the art collective Hotham Street Ladies say it is time we celebrate menstruation as an important, life-establishing process. The artists were motivated to make a uterine mark in the graffiti world to counteract the ever-present phallic representations typically seen in toilet stalls.
In Penny Byrne’s Blood Diamond, a large, healthy, levitating 3D-printed red blood cell is stationed in the back of a dark room, illuminated periodically. This artwork explores fascinating new technologies to detect malaria, a mosquito-borne disease which continues to kill more than 400,000 people a year. These technologies, used in conjunction with one another, can detect a malaria-infected cell cheaply, instantly and significantly earlier in infection than current tests, even before symptoms are evident.
The first technology uses sound waves to levitate or float drops of blood; the second uses infrared light reflected off a diamond and shone through the droplets of floating blood. Malaria-infected blood absorbs light differently than normal blood due to the presence of fatty acids that reveal the presence of the malaria parasite.
To experience this immersive piece, users wore an augmented-reality headset to see other blood cells in the room; these new cells are dimpled and have rough edges, signifying malarial infection.
Is all blood created equal? Jordan Eagle’s work is part of a larger project, also called Blood Equality, that aims to stop stigmatisation and bring equality to blood donation. The work is composed of panels of crackled, crystallised blood donated by people who, due to being members of ‘high-risk’ groups, are not wanted as blood donors. Visitors are invited to immerse themselves within this rejected blood.
In the US, Britain and Australia, sexually active gay, bisexual and transgender people must abstain for a year if they wish to donate blood, although tests can now detect the HIV virus in blood within seven to 10 days after infection. The policy, the work points out, does not reflect the science.
BLOOD: Attract and Repel was hosted at the Science Gallery Melbourne in August and September of 2017. Much of the exhibition was then displayed in London until November.
Nicki Cranna is a science communicator based in Melbourne.
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