Art by Elaine Whittaker

DREADFUL VISITATIONS

2006

by Suzanne Robertson

 

*Toronto writer and Photographer

"Humans are ninety percent non-human: nine out of ten cells in our bodies are other living organisms. We are all individual -- and socially living -- ecologies, a thriving community of organisms."

- Elaine Whittaker

We live in an increasingly porous world where migrations of people, animals, and microorganisms are crossing borders and hemispheres at an alarming rate. And yet we live in a society that is obsessed with defining boundaries. Whether it be our bodies, our homes, or our natural surroundings; we like to keep things out. So we disinfect, sterilize, and pasteurize, until our guts are free of flora, our food is empty of all nutrients, and our crystal-clear lakes are purged of marine life.

Elaine Whittaker’s exhibit Dreadful Visitations is inspired by the precarious intersection between art and science. These installations and paintings explore the microorganisms that make up and intersect with our bodies. They invite us to consider the cellular communities transforming us and the social ecologies we inhabit.

"Am I part of the cure or of the disease?"

- Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002).

Whittaker offers us disturbing, subversive, and strangely personal responses to this question. Each piece contains both an abstract and intimate viewing experience. Stand a few feet back and the works reverberate with energy; crusted bones rattle in wire cages; a moored boat creaks against a wall; a whole stream of masks flow by. The emotions that emanate from these paintings and installations can feel expansive and difficult to locate. But step closer and the view changes dramatically.

In Miasma respirator masks are painted with viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protists; images that resemble illustrations found in science textbooks. Whittaker uses the mask, a filtering tool we rely on to protect ourselves, and reveals its potential to become a host site for contagious microbes. She transforms the imagery of diseases by creating new visual representations for them. Suddenly a virus is not portrayed as the enemy, not segregated as ‘the other’. Instead it is seen holistically, as one amidst a whole population of microorganisms that inhabit the earth.

From a distance The Swarm resembles a large, grid-like surface spotted with the random notations of black dots. As the eye focuses on just one, the dot transforms into a mosquito encapsulated in a thick membrane of wax. All the corpses of these insects are preserved like evidence of vector-borne agents for diseases such as Malaria and West Nile Virus.

Against another wall floats Microbial Passage. Upon careful inspection the encaustic sails appear to be infected, and the mast -- that fragile backbone made from gridded wire -- is being corroded by salt crystals. The ship itself is a disintegrating organism, once capable of transporting disease and altering ecologies. And finally, there is Zoonosis, a series of wire cages that house mutating DNA sculptures constructed from chicken bones. Like the mast on the sailboat, these vulnerable structures are slowly being devoured by salt. Zoonosis occurs when an infectious disease is transmitted to humans by other animals. Staring at these helixes we are reminded of the Avian Flu outbreaks in wild and domestic birds, and wonder if this virus will someday make the leap from human to human.

I was sore afflicted."

- Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

It is eery, to walk through Whittaker’s exhibit and (re)discover that sense of distress and presentiment found in Defoe’s response to the "dreadful visitation" of the bubonic plague in 17th century London. With her provocative visions, Whittaker makes manifest the ubiquitous nature of diseases in the 21st century, and implicates our human rituals and practices that continue to irrevocably alter the world. Her personal explorations traverse corporal, geographical, and social boundaries. Collectively they become an explicit interrogation of the societies we live in. Amidst the devastating reality of illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis, each piece comes with the urgency of a warning; a siren call, as we hold our breaths in anticipation of the next plague.

Suzanne Robertson is a writer and photographer living in Toronto