THE MIRROR AND THE MICROSCOPE
Paracelsus’ Garden, the intriguing title of Angela Su’s new works at Grotto Fine Art gallery, might appear to allude to a timeless, mythical, pastoral place. Yet the name, Paracelsus belongs to a figure, heralded by scholar and mystic, Manly Hall, as “the most original medical thinker of the 16th century.” An often arrogant, yet brilliant, alchemist/physicist, he was both reviled and worshiped for his potent, medicinal cures. Many of his spiritual rituals were formed from Paracelsus’s intrigue with celestial bodies, and the spiritual world, rather than with anything earthly or scientifically proven.
Angela Su trained as a biochemist, before moving on to Fine Art and it is from these two divergent backgrounds that her interest in the Paracelsus and other Renaissance figures emerge. Connecting her ideas through her imaginative drawings, to this blending of science and alchemy, and recognizing the mutability or change, in species, whether, human animal or the insect variety. These are often accompanied by Latin names or titles, rather than their vernacular names, referencing their respective kingdoms, orders, classes, genera, or families. They engage with issues of hierarchies, and of the secular versus religious doctrines. As much as they are about explorations of the body, as in her earlier De Humani Corporis Fabrica, based upon the anatomical atlas of Andreas Vesalius, we are also dealing with the plant, and animal kingdom. The viewer is given a sense that these figures belong to a trans-existent state, a world, in the words of Su, ‘where we evolve into hybrids, where the physical and the metaphysical sides of nature coexist’. Still, as the viewers of this strange fantastical space, we are also placed in an ambiguous situation, unclear if what we see, belongs to the natural world, or an unfamiliar, imaginary world; echoing a time and place where medicine, knowledge and the evolution of humankind had become of considerable importance within Renaissance thought.
Yet her ‘other worldly’ specimens, an array of different ‘primitive’ life forms as she classifies them engage firmly with the present, dissecting many issues and debates around Cartesian mind/body concepts, and engaging with whether survival of the ‘prettiest of the species’ in that is there an attempt still to try to eradicate imperfections, distortions, or characteristics that tends to drive us closer towards artificiality, both as kinetic human bodies, but also anesthetize our engagement with everyday experience. One that leaves us less connected both physically and intellectually to one another, in favor of clinical, or at a distance, via emails or text messages. Ironically, text and the body feature significantly in her work and it is this binary problematic, that emerges, when we consider if it is theory that influences artistic practice, or practice that informs theory? In that we gain some way into understanding her thoughts and the traces through her memories and where they take us.
Whether Angela Su develops her concepts from Darwinian ‘fixity of species’, or genetic engineering and the cloning of the body, audiences grapple with her intricate and microscopic views of the transmutation of the human frame, whether, ambiguous bodily forms, or depicted from the arthropod or botanical worlds. The viewer is drawn into a hidden, or secret world, not only of the artist’s imagination, but also within words that carry pluralistic meanings, that seeks to entice, yet rarely reveal their origins.
Her images are also a direct root back to Ernst Haeckel’s extraordinary painted pseudo-scientific illustrations, and evolutionary tree - an illustration of a tripartite half tree-root like form, with its spiked and knarred branches that twist their evolutionary alchemical ladder into Mandrake [plant genus], Homunculus [human or little man] and Basilisk [reptilian ‘little king’] respectively. Although similar in appearance, to his intricate and mesmerizing forms, whether a multi-legged beetle, or hybrid moth, Su’s embroidered works are incredibly time consuming to form, their delicate, featheriness and stitched surfaces, give a slight eeriness to them, such as her ‘Aporophyla lutulenta’ – that appears to be a very rare, deep brown, dart, moth. By contrast, her bold, highly detailed ink on drafting film of a microscopic, view of the mountain stag beetle, originating in China, entitled, ‘Lucanus hermani DeLisle’ appears fossil like, captured and dissected.
From the insect realm to the human domain, Angela Su’s larger than life sized anatomical drawings of interiors of the body, attract us towards their structural composition yet repel us from their flayed, fleshy matter. Similarly, her feathered, fern-like embroidered pieces, entitled Class Culture and Colony; may allude to medical research; colony forming abilities of cells in cultures - both mutant forms in nature, cloned cells, and differentiation between cellular structures, - as much as the title of the work might link to ‘outcasts’ in society. Alternatively they evoke a strong sense of artificial boundaries of class and cultures, racial/colonial commentary of existing in ‘being-in-between’ [Deleuze] or not belonging to any one host group or people. The concept of the ‘parasitic’, as something that feeds off of another species or group might also come to mind, as there is in Su’s depiction of pseudo-spermatozoa contain within them not just the ‘seed’ of life, but life itself, in the form of the ‘head’ of the sperm emerging as a womb-like vessel within which a minute, embryo is nested. Interestingly her structural drawings of each of these, emerges as singular, individual gametes, rather than a mass, of reproductive cells, giving them a sense of uniqueness or character, revealing microscopic embryonic life fused inside the head of the sperm.
Angela Su’s species are in the artist’s words, treated like new, ‘hybrid’ entities, emerging from their chrysalis-like altered states, interestingly, there are links with literary tropes, whether conscious or not - to Ezra Pound’s line from his Portrait d'une femme ‘pregnant with Mandrakes or something else’…revives a possible neo-pagan practice, to do with ‘odinism’ – magicians, who could, for example, mould the mandrake- a root with its bulbous peduncles, into human figures [Paul Christian in his book the History & Practice of Magic, likened the root to the HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homunculus" \o "Homunculus" homunculus,‘little man in a bottle’ hence its stake on Haeckel’s evolutionary tree] by twisting the upper branches to make limbs extended from its base. Ancient beliefs held that the mandrake would sprout roots where semen of a hanged man fell on to the earth; [recounted in Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ 1949].
Yet for all of its references to the alchemical and the mystical, Paracelsus’ Garden reaches beyond the realm of its ‘sui generis’, or unique state of human existence, for it resides in world’s that collide; the scientific with the alchemical; the anatomical with nature. Pursuing her interest in the taxonomical, and the history of classification of types, Angela Su’s sewn or drawn forms, have a deep magnetism, that encourages the viewer to seek a fuller understanding of what lies beyond the surface of the works, for no matter how tactile, or visceral they appeal, they engage both visual and verbally with a wealth of ideas, of principles based on either knowledge or medicine.
In her artist statement, Su mentions if humans are ‘the true anomalies of nature who transgress against its myriad forms of life’ likening the human body to a spreading virus, ultimately hurling towards, if not perdition, then an uninhabitable place, in order to regenerate new life and balance. Destruction, regeneration or rebirth, links mortality with the soul and hence immortality, however, the artist does allow for impressions towards taxonomical profiling, the position of a system in the evolutionary chain, but one that comes from something far more spectacular, with a sort of treatment towards a passage, or rite for us to journey of discovery.
It is timely that this exhibition takes place, as we approach the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. For Angela Su reflects upon his position, his unquestionable, if not fraught contribution to science and knowledge, and suggests that ‘despite its radical effect on science, Darwinism failed to temper the self-centered way in which we assess our place and actions in the world”. [Frederick C. Crews, ‘Saving Us From Darwin, 2001]
The ‘Mirror and the Microscope’ refers to Darwin’s interest in taking a mirror to the existing world through scientific and ocular analysis and makes us see difference in species. Angela Su however, engages more through perceiving the mirror as a reflection of her own ‘secret garden’ the title of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s novel, whereupon unlocking the door, you too can cross over into a place of exchange between the artist and her world of endless mutability, a space in which “surprising things can happen to anyone”.
- Pamela Kember, March 2008