The paradox in our veins

What makes blood so controversial yet alluring? Artists explore this in-depth within BLOOD: Attract and Repel, the first exhibition of the new Science Gallery Melbourne.

Still of John McGhee's virtual reality artwork from the Blood: Attract and Repel exhibit (used with permission)

Still of John McGhee's virtual reality artwork from the Blood: Attract and Repel exhibit (used with permission)

“Would you like some black sausage?”

This question can elicit strong reactions. The Irish delicacy of intestines stuffed with congealed pig’s blood is a divisive dish. Some people are repulsed by the idea, while others find it irresistible. But for the next two months, a new gallery in Melbourne will be asking its visitors a different question: 

“Would you like some black sausage, made from the congealed blood of a pig that right now still lives and breathes less than 100 kilometres away?”

This question can provoke surprising and contradictory responses. People attracted to the flavour suddenly find themselves feeling uneasy about its source; those repulsed by eating blood can’t help but be curious. Even vegetarians opposed to eating meat are forced to ask themselves, “Is this any different to drinking milk?”

These tough questions with contradictory answers are being asked at BLOOD: Attract & Repel, the first exhibition of Science Gallery Melbourne. This new gallery will also be the first Australian addition to the international Science Gallery network – an initiative that seeks to engage young people in the big questions that science can evoke. The Science Gallery's global director Andrea Bandelli described the concept as "not an art gallery, not a science museum, it’s something in between." And indeed it is neither — rather, it's an eclectic and surprising mixture of science, art, technology and culture. BLOOD reveals the different ways in which society interacts with this ubiquitous bodily fluid through its exploration of six sub-themes: Taboo, Stigma, Health, Giving, Future, and Identity.

 
In his work Recycling, Bao Yiluo mounted an enormous fibreglass heart on a San Lun Che, a tricycle often used to transport rubbish in China.© Bao Yiluo & White Rabbit Collection Sydney (used with permission)

In his work Recycling, Bao Yiluo mounted an enormous fibreglass heart on a San Lun Che, a tricycle often used to transport rubbish in China.© Bao Yiluo & White Rabbit Collection Sydney (used with permission)

 

Penny Byrne's work, Blood Diamond, explores the intersection of health and future. Penny partnered with a group of Monash University researchers who had developed a revolutionary tool that makes it possible to instantly diagnose malaria in blood samples far earlier in infection than before. Malaria inflicts significant damage across the world, killing 500,000 to 1 million people every year. The researchers have combined two techniques that sound like plot devices in a science fiction movie. First, they levitate drops of blood using sound waves. Then, they shine infrared light (reflected off a diamond) through the floating blood droplets. From the light the droplets absorb, they can identify whether the malaria parasite is present.

In Blood Diamond, the artists and researchers have collaborated to produce a similarly space-age installation that envelopes the viewer in the complex technology behind this important advance in the fight against malaria. Rather than working with familiar materials such as the ceramics or bronze from her previous works, Byrne collaborated closely with the researchers, adapting and incorporating the science and technology of the diagnostic tool into the installation.

A giant red blood cell hovers above a black plinth. Visitors are invited to wear an augmented reality headset which superimposes virtual images on the wearer’s view of the real world, like an all-encompassing Snapchat filter. This enables the wearer to see, almost like magic, more red blood cells within the space. But there is something different about them, the shape of the cells are deformed; they display the hallmark of malaria infection.

 
Artist Penny Byrne’s Blood Diamond features a levitating red blood cell that makes current advances in malaria diagnosis feel like science fiction. © Penny Byrne (used with permission)

Artist Penny Byrne’s Blood Diamond features a levitating red blood cell that makes current advances in malaria diagnosis feel like science fiction. © Penny Byrne (used with permission)

 

The exhibition’s by-line, ‘Attract & Repel’, hints at the inherent contradictions in the way we feel about blood, and BLOOD is full of these contradictions. It manages to be playful and appetising while also being offensive. As Cassandra Chilton says of her art, “we’re trying to make it delicious as well as confronting.”

Cassandra and Molly O'Shaughnessy, two members of the Hotham Street Ladies, are behind You Beaut. This piece features two toilet stalls covered extensively with graffiti of uteruses, including examples of uterine diseases and abnormalities. The entire work is painted with royal icing, piped from icing bags in shapes and patterns that give an uncomfortably visceral yet undeniably delicious quality to the uterine diagrams. “We try to make it disgusting,” says Cassandra, “yet there’s something about the icing and something about the piping – it always looks cute. Which I guess is the point”.

In one stall, a uterus has menorrhagia, or heavy menstrual bleeding, depicted by volumes of vivid red icing laced with red raspberry lollies pouring down the wall and out the cubicle door. The icing pools in large droplets on the floor, uncomfortably, tantalisingly close to the viewer. “we used a lot of sugar,[somewhere] in the vicinity of 30 kilos” says Molly. “The level of detail is far greater than we thought we were going to do at the beginning,” adds Cassandra, “we over-catered!”

 
“We’re trying to make it delicious as well as confronting.” Cassandra Chilton and Molly O’Shaughnessy used 30 kilograms of royal icing to graffiti toilet stalls with uteruses and menstrual blood in You Beaut. © Hotham Street Ladies (used with permission)

“We’re trying to make it delicious as well as confronting.” Cassandra Chilton and Molly O’Shaughnessy used 30 kilograms of royal icing to graffiti toilet stalls with uteruses and menstrual blood in You Beaut. © Hotham Street Ladies (used with permission)

 

Cassandra and Molly say that You Beaut was inspired by the ubiquitous phallic graffiti that goes unanswered by its uterine equivalent. But to create their new-school graffiti, they first had to consult some very old-school sources. “We were very influenced by and spent a lot of time looking at textbooks” said Molly. “We looked at these amazing 18th century lithographs of really early drawings of uteruses, drawn from actual specimens.”

Genital graffiti is not the only historically male-dominated art form where the Hotham Street Ladies are making their mark. The overwhelming majority of medical illustrators, the artists behind the uterus diagrams that informed You Beaut, are men. Henry Gray, for example, is the man behind the famous textbook, Gray’s Anatomy. In the University of Stuttgart’s directory of over 11,000 scientific illustrators between 1450 and 1950, less than 10% are women. You Beaut is therefore a surprisingly rare opportunity to view and learn from depictions of female anatomy made by women.

Beyond textbooks, Molly and Cassandra collaborated with contemporaries at the University of Melbourne. “We spoke to a forensic pathologist here at the University,” says Cassandra, “they schooled us on all things ‘Ute’,” The two women also held a workshop with medical students from Women In Science & Engineering, or WISE, a student group on campus. As a group they experimented with ways to depict the complex structures, cell layers and membranes that make up the uterus. “A lot of the talk during the workshop was about people’s experience of Sex-ed at school,” says Molly, an experience that left many in the group confused about their bodies. Cassandra, like many young women, was taught sex education hidden away from the boys in her school. “The boys went and played soccer while the girls were whisked away to a room and told about their periods.” 

 
You Beaut features anatomically accurate diagrams of rare uterine structures, including double uteruses. © Hotham Street Ladies (used with permission)

You Beaut features anatomically accurate diagrams of rare uterine structures, including double uteruses. © Hotham Street Ladies (used with permission)

 

This cultural and scientific value in You Beaut has not saved it from the wrath of conservative critics. Even before the work was installed, the Herald Sun was quoting conservative groups attacking You Beaut. In an article published on July 12 2017, a spokesperson for the Family Council of Victoria, a conservative Christian group, called it both offensive and worthless, and suggested that the Science Gallery’s public funding should be questioned for featuring something that is “just shock value”. The irony is apparently lost on them that You Beaut was created to celebrate the beauty of uteruses, and challenge the idea that they are offensive or shocking in the first place. Cassandra says, “It really proves our point that we were curated to do this work under the ‘Taboo’ theme”. Cassandra and Molly are clearly unruffled by the controversy, thanks to their wicked sense of humour. “It’s hard to offend people with icing, but I guess we’re trying,” says Molly.

Many of the works in BLOOD incorporate the subject matter quite literally. It’s not a collection for passive observers: the gallery constantly challenges its visitors to touch, smell, and even eat different blood products. Visitors can hold household objects baked and pressed from waste slaughterhouse blood, smell the isolated and concentrated molecule responsible for blood’s distinctive smell, and eat black pudding cooked with blood taken from live pigs. This use of blood and blood products elicits strong physical and emotional reactions in gallery viewers. On its website, the gallery acknowledges that “when we embarked on this project, people said to us: you’re gonna have a lot of fainters”. These works readily intrigue and disgust people who have not even visited the gallery, giving credence to the exhibition’s by-line, “Attract & Repel”. Yet it may not even be one of these works that stays with you the longest.

 
Basse Stittgen’s Blood Objects features household objects such as bowls and vinyl records made out of baked waste blood from slaughterhouses. © Basse Stittgen (used with permission)

Basse Stittgen’s Blood Objects features household objects such as bowls and vinyl records made out of baked waste blood from slaughterhouses. © Basse Stittgen (used with permission)

 

Surrounded by visceral artworks that assault the senses, sits the most abstract depiction of blood in the collection. Unlike many of its neighbours, it is not made from blood, nor does it conjure immediate physical reactions. It does not even contain a single shade of red. Dan Elborn’s One Drop of Blood is monochrome white; twenty thousand small white porcelain pieces, piled upon each other indiscriminately. Together, they represent the number of white blood cells present in a single drop of blood.

One Drop of Blood tells the story of the artist’s mother and her fight with breast cancer. Shortly after her diagnosis, Dan’s mother began chemotherapy, a treatment so strong and imprecise that it is as toxic to many healthy cells as is to the target tumour. It is most toxic to cells that are rapidly replicating, which means not only cancerous tumours, but healthy replicating cells such as white blood cells are also targeted. Because of this, chemotherapy can severely weaken a person’s immune system, lowering their resistance to disease. For a chemotherapy patient, everyday cuts and colds are potential sources of a life-threatening infection.

 
In One Drop of Blood, ceramic artist Dan Elborne uses twenty thousand porcelain balls to represent the number of white blood cells in a single drop of blood. © Ben Tupos (used with permission)

In One Drop of Blood, ceramic artist Dan Elborne uses twenty thousand porcelain balls to represent the number of white blood cells in a single drop of blood. © Ben Tupos (used with permission)

 

For Dan, it was during his mother’s chemotherapy treatment that her fight with cancer changed from being abstract to something much more real and concrete. He received a rushed call from his father to tell him that his mother’s white blood cell count had plummeted, a call cut short so that they could race to hospital. “After hearing that Mum’s white blood cell count was dangerously low, it was the sudden realisation of my lack of knowledge, and then my panicked research, which changed my perspective,” Dan says.

Having embodied the white blood cells in porcelain, Dan leaves the symbolic destruction of the immune system to his audience. Viewers are encouraged to take portions of the work home with them, in return for a donation to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. In doing this, Dan hands control of the work over to the audience, mirroring his powerlessness in the face of his mother’s cancer. How rapidly the artwork dwindles, if it will last until the end of the show, and where the thousands of porcelain pieces go, are out of his hands, and instead left to the collective decision of the audience. Participants also take on a great symbolic responsibility. In donating to the foundation and taking pieces of the work, they embody the chemotherapy drugs themselves, fighting breast cancer but at the same time steadily lowering the white blood cell count.

In previous showings of the work, visitor responses to this power and responsibility often surprised the artist. Some take pieces by the handful, but most hesitate to touch even a single cell of the fragile pile of porcelain. They are careful, almost reverential towards the individual cells they choose to remove. “The work is representative of a personal story, and made of a material that is so often not meant to be touched,” says Dan. “I think this makes the viewer a little uneasy, and even hesitant to participate in something that ultimately comes from a sad place.”

 
Through his work One Drop of Blood, Dan Elborne reflects on his mother’s experience with breast cancer and chemotherapy. © Ben Tupos (used with permission)

Through his work One Drop of Blood, Dan Elborne reflects on his mother’s experience with breast cancer and chemotherapy. © Ben Tupos (used with permission)

 

One Drop of Blood’s use of countless small, breakable pieces of porcelain conveys the feeling of powerlessness and fragility Dan felt in the face of his mother’s illness, to speak to an experience that is at once painfully personal and universal. This feeling is made more difficult to leave behind when you have kept a small piece of it in your pocket. “As a material commonly associated with fragility, preciousness and vulnerability,” Dan says. “I think it's a good medium to address sensitive and often traumatic events, history and memories.”

BLOOD is currently open at the University of Melbourne in the Frank Tate Building, located on 761 Swanston St, Parkville. It will run until September 23rd, 2017. It is the first of several planned pop-up exhibitions that will run in Melbourne and across Victoria, until the official opening of the Science Gallery in 2020, on the site of the former Royal Women’s Hospital on Grattan Street in Carlton.

Edited by Cherese Sonkkila