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Katie Paterson Fossil Necklace
Katie Paterson, Fossil Necklace, 2013
Carved rounded fossils Photo © MJC

Foreign Bodies, Common Ground

Giuseppe Marasco explores how artists from around the world challenge taboos and stereotypes.

A group of six artists from different countries explore new ways of making art. They reject easy curatorial definitions and refuse to perform to marketable image-making.

The Wellcome Collection presents artists who had residencies in medical research centres. They consider relations between our human selves, in medicine, meat consumption and the history and materiality of the planet.

Many have travelled extensively throughout their own countries and some have an anthropological approach to the work shown, looking at themselves, an internal understanding rather than the without of others.

Katie Paterson’s 170-bead Fossil Necklace is a seductive artwork made of fossil stone. The materials exist only because they once were alive and poignantly belonged to different periods of evolution on the planet, many of the species ceasing to exist before the next stone on the necklace by a few million years – making an exceedingly exciting object – more precious and meaningful than diamonds. It simply resonates life, knowledge and ownership of the planet.

Lena Bui, Eat by Faith
Lena Bui, Eat by Faith, 2012 (detail)
digital photograph on aluminum

The notion of value is further explored in Lêna Bùi’s meat sculpture – more specifically the nature, status of meat and the treatment of animals. She looks at the changing relationship of meat consumption in her country, with increased affluence and the perceived status and aspiration qualities attached to it. She  picks up taboos around animal slaughter and the distancing of urban populations from the reality of meat production. An aim of her work is an attempt to preserve sensitivity, value and relation and awareness of this special resource and our relationship to the animal.

Her photographs examine the many vegetable products which are made to appear as meat dishes in Vietnam. They strangely combine sculpture and mould making akin to the mini-industries that used too exist in making religious tourist replica objects as well as the Roman habit of regularly disguising foods in ever more inventive forms.

Trained as a painter, her work recalls the style of Food Porn Photography and the large biomorphic meat sculpture evokes textures akin to Anish Kapoor’s Svayambh, a giant pigment sculpture seen at the RA in 2006 as well as the glossy finish of Gary Hume’s enamel paint sculptures.

Other works include ink paintings of Bacterial Pattern swirls – a single panel takes 80 hours to make, whereas bacteria multiplying can do so in a single hour.

Kafukufuku Man and Kafukufuku Women by Elson Kambalu, Malawi
Kafukufuku Man and Kafukufuku Women by Elson Kambalu, Malawi

Prominent among Elson Kambalu's projects are earth pigment murals of his native Malawi which embody the structures and relationships between men in women in light of medicine and magic. He uses materials and construction techniques in these traditional houses that are fast disappearing. 

He has transformed would have been traditional houses. Their dimensions are squeezed, and they have lost their original function. In this case of the familiar turned into the unfamiliar,  there is a powerful symbolic resonance. The two houses each represent a man and a woman constructed with the mud from the different terrains of Malawi.

The traditional mud houses are now disappearing as red houses replace them. Alongside them the tradition of painting on the outside walls of the houses is dying out. Where they are being seen as part of the past, Elson has seen their value and given this tradition a burst of new life. His work opens up traditions and a dialogue about contemporary issues that would have been otherwise difficult to speak up about. 

It is the women who have broken through the cultural fear of letting others take your blood, one impact of which has been the low detection of AIDS. Things are complicated in that medical consent is often not taken from an individual but from the extended family and tribe network rather than from the woman or individual.  There is something remarkable in the level of consultation amongst persons here; in present democracies we lack this flow of discussion. These artists are very aware of western framings and seek to step very clearly away from that.

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, Conjure Skies, 2012
Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki,
Conjure Skies, 2012

In the Murals Projects, Elson invited 30 women to take up the tradition of painting the outside walls of houses. He gives voice and realises the complex relationships which are at play and a new life to tradition. The women painted things that took their fancy or inspired them such as David Beckham playing football.

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki’s Ocean of Infinite Possibility was recently shown at the 1-50 exhibition during Frieze week at Somerset House. One of my favourite pieces is the photo of a pair of dancing hands, that are medical gloves blown and partly inflated in the wind. They are at a magical crossroads, an intermediate place finely balanced on a new horizon, remaining potential and yet not subsumed.

25 February 2014

Foreign Bodies, Common Ground at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road London NW1 2BE runs until 16 March 2014. Free admission

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