Our faultless illusions

Perfection: In an age of technological precision, the latest exhibition by Science Gallery Melbourne questions how exact we want our world to be.

 
  Harmony, the companion robot can be tailored to meet our every desire. In the background, Womanhours explores the painful truth of human beauty standards.  © Matt McMullen & Tyler Payne (Photograph by author)

Harmony, the companion robot can be tailored to meet our every desire. In the background, Womanhours explores the painful truth of human beauty standards. © Matt McMullen & Tyler Payne (Photograph by author)

 

Perfect can seem like an objective descriptor: something is either flawless, or it’s not. But in truth, perfection may be something wholly subjective and oddly foreign. And although awareness of the fraught and toxic relationship that society has with the ideal is increasing, there is a lot more to uncover about this underlying danger.

The aim of this year’s Science Gallery Melbourne exhibition is to explore the many facets of PERFECTION and examine the individual and societal relationships associated with it. The exhibition invites us to view the world through a distorted plastic curtain, where the artists’ expressions of artificiality, alteration and manipulation leave little room for the natural world. Yes, there is perfection in nature, but this is not that exhibition.

Science Gallery Melbourne Director, Rose Hiscock, explained that the PERFECTION exhibition “ask[s] what it means to pursue perfection in a non-perfect world.” The pastel pink and green of the environment is pleasant at first, but over time feels more saturating and artificial — a constant reminder of our removal from the natural world. Walking past a round, seemingly normal mirror can be a surprisingly uncomfortable experience as the subtle warp alters the true image ever so slightly. It’s not like a fun mirror at a theme park; it is ordinary, which is why the reflection it offers back is unsettling.

One of the questions this exhibition asks is: does perfection equal faultlessness, or even beauty? On first thought, they may be synonyms, but this idea is challenged in the Biometric Mirror by Lucy McRae, Dr Niels Wouters, and Nick Smith. An algorithm analyses your face for features to inform you of what percentage ‘weird’ or ‘fun’ you are, with the algorithm’s perception of these traits collated from averages from many other faces.

Originally a research project, the algorithm designs your ‘perfect’ face with the apparent correct proportions for beauty; a reference to plastic surgeon Dr Stephen Marquardt’s research on human attractiveness. Marquadt’s research has spawned the Golden Decagon Matrix mask, based on a series of mathematical relationships applied to facial structure. The algorithm at PERFECTION applies this Golden Mask to your own face, creating a version that is mathematically and proportionately perfect. But since this algorithm’s baseline for perfection and point of reference is taken from averages, what does this say about perfection itself?

One of the featured artists, Tyler Payne, depicts the raw discomfort of our pursuit for perfection in her work Womanhours. Video footage of her facial expressions while being subjected to a Brazilian wax and a fake tan suggest that the path to a socially-constructed idea of beauty is anything but beautiful, and there is a great deal of labour involved. In creating films in which her expressions of discomfort are on clear display whilst pursuing this ‘beautiful’ path, Payne says her strategy is “to return the gaze, to say, ‘I see you seeing me.’ This is an act of defiance.”

 
  The artificiality of the PERFECTION exhibition is made more unsettling by subtly warped mirrors throughout the space.  © Photograph by author

The artificiality of the PERFECTION exhibition is made more unsettling by subtly warped mirrors throughout the space. © Photograph by author

 

Along a similar vein, is a work by French self-proclaimed medical performance artist, ORLAN, who undertook plastic surgery in medical performances in the 1990s. The seventh of her plastic surgery operations, Omnipresence, first aired as a media event in November 1993, and is presented in video form at PERFECTION. The procedures she undertook were designed to fit the Western ideal of beauty, with traits collected from historically beautiful figures, such as Mona Lisa’s brow and the lips of Monteu’s Europa. ORLAN herself said that she isn’t against plastic surgery, but is instead at odds with “its attempts to standardise people”. In the hunt for the beau ideal, what space is left for diversity?

Despite our best attempts to alter ourselves, we are dealt just one version of the genetic code in the lottery of life. And with gene editing technology advancing at an exponential rate, the extent to which we can alter our own genetic code is growing. In Genetics Gym, Adam Peacock “uses genetics as a tool for discussion”. Working with geneticists at University College London, he determined the alterations we could make to our code, and by extension, our body, including the modifications that would be easy to make even now. He contrasts these with some absurd capabilities not likely possible in the near-future.

In a huge international mission to map the entire genetic composition of the human species across all 23 chromosomes, the Human Genome Project was conducted by scientists from twenty institutions, in six countries, over thirteen years. The project began in 1990, and due to technological advancements and further advancements in our knowledge of how our genetic ‘recipe’ for life operates, this same task can take only 1-2 days to read, as opposed to thirteen years.

In Genetics Gym, traits ranging from fat reduction to leg-lengthening are laid out in a menu, and combinations of traits are translated into schematic diagrams for five characters. We see the alterations being made to their bodies in a video, including enlarging muscles to slimming down thighs. What if, instead of the tired trope of a woman wishing to be thinner, she could alter her silhouette to exaggerate and indent the curves, embracing them and bucking against the trend? This, too, is an option from the menu.

 
  Graham the car crash model looks upon the changing bodies and genetic alterations in Genetic Gym  © Patricia Piccinini & Adam Peacock (Photograph by author)

Graham the car crash model looks upon the changing bodies and genetic alterations in Genetic Gym © Patricia Piccinini & Adam Peacock (Photograph by author)

 

Science and government have been operating at different speeds in the space of gene editing, and Peacock explores the legitimacy of government involvement in exercising our capabilities. The installation also brings to mind the same dilemma of sameness in beauty that was raised by ORLAN. What would easy-to-access gene editing mean for the existence of diversity in our society, and could we ever recover?

With people living longer than ever before thanks to modern medicine, we are set to be affected by an aging society in the years to come. Over the previous twenty years in Australia, we have seen a 130% increase in the proportion of the population aged over 85, which raises serious concerns for health and community sectors across the country. Rather than associating age and the end of one’s life with sickness and mortality, Yiyun Chen has instead created “a fictional home for the elderly”.

Sick Better is a playful series of paired artworks where chronic symptoms — ordinarily seen as a negative — are transformed into something useful and strikingly beautiful. A man with a persistent cough blows unique vases, and his flow of air makes him a world-famous artist. An orchestra plays a symphony with instruments that are better played by trembling hands than stable ones. A cough is recorded and turned into music. Electricity is produced from a man’s trembling hands, and the money is used to cover his pension costs.

 
  The panels in Sick Better illustrate how symptoms experienced by elderly people are transformed into something new and useful  © Yiyun Chen (Photograph by author)

The panels in Sick Better illustrate how symptoms experienced by elderly people are transformed into something new and useful © Yiyun Chen (Photograph by author)

 

Residents of this home for the elderly are contributing to art and culture, not in spite of their imperfections but because of them. In a portrait of the celebration of illness and symptoms, Chen’s installation “advocates for a neutral attitude towards ‘unwellness’ in an aging society.” Through the valuable, beautiful contributions of these residents we are led to consider whether striving for perfection would stifle potential for creativity.

Of course, there are other characters in residence at PERFECTION, all advocating for their own unique take on the concept. Meet Graham, perfectly designed to survive a low speed car crash, although he might not be a handsome candidate for The Bachelor. Introduce yourself to Harmony, the companion robot, and ask her about the social consequences of intimate human-robot relationships on the horizon. See in real time how a blind fish uses electrical signals to instruct a robot, giving feedback to keep an ecosystem in perfect balance. Science and art collaborate to scrutinise every aspect of a foreign future.

Throughout history, ideals have changed, often rapidly, and we are headed quickly into a space where we have more manipulative power than ever before, over our environment and our own bodies. What might the repercussions be? Are we headed toward a utopia or a dystopia? PERFECTION wrestles with the idea of a truly flawless world that is malicious at its core. Looks can in fact be deceiving, and blindly heading into a scientific future where perfection is increasingly achievable might be more complicated than we first thought.

Following the success of the BLOOD exhibition last year, PERFECTION is the second pop-up Science Gallery exhibition in Melbourne. The Science Gallery is a global initiative that blurs the line between a science museum and an art gallery, with a permanent Science Gallery Melbourne space set to open in 2020. PERFECTION currently lives at the Melbourne School of Design, now open for you to explore until November 3.

Edited by John Back