Monday, June 18, 2012

Triffids Land at Leonardo! Philip Beesley's 'Hylozoic Veil.'

           Just when you thought Salt Lake was a nice, quiet town, a sculptural installation at The Leonardo will make you think again. Dangling over the foyer like Olympic Tower’s demonic sister, Hylozoic Veil by Philip Beesley creates a dramatic addition to the museum and more generally, to sculpture in Salt Lake. It also joins an international coterie of triffids threatening world invasion.
            Unlike the protagonists of John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, Hylozoic Veil is more subdued, preferring to attach itself to the bowels of the building, rather than traipsing around the city. Extending vertically and horizontally from inside The Leoardo’s roof, a motley crew of materials include plastic fronds, electric lights, vials and suspension wires. Eight diagrams displayed on the top floor explain that these are really “breathing pores, swallowing actuators, filter cluster drones, and silicon tongue extensions.” Within this circuitry, a ‘liquid system’ purporting to share properties of living organisms is housed in a network of alembics and ampules. The purpose of these in relation to the rest of the sculpture is unclear, and functions as a gratuitous (though beautifully antiquated) chemistry set.
            This behemoth of gadgetry is linked by a ‘dense array of microprocessors, sensors and actuator systems’ which lead to a master control board that activates Hylozoic Veil’s  responsiveness. Manifesting as twitches, ripples, contractions and light bursts, such manoeuvers are prompted by the presence of a visitor. In this way, the work alludes to the riddle of whether a sound is made in the woods, if nobody is there to hear it. "When you walk through this environment," Beesley explains, "there are arrays of space sensors all the way through which track your movement and know where you are. And they start breathing and rippling all through the environment and it has a kind of a presence which is nearly alive." Some have likened this to a ‘giant lung, breathing in and out around visitors.’ How cool this would be if it actually worked. Hylozoic Veil was positively dormant during my visit, despite the many kisses I blew. It left me feeling nostalgic for the truly mobile work of Alexander Calder.

            At the heart of many Science Fiction fantasies lies the desire to replicate life, or at the very least, to isolate its essence. Movement has long been the philosopher’s stone of this pursuit, as witnessed by a long line of dolls, automata and robots dating back to the Renaissance. (In fact, it really dates back to the Golem who, activated by divine intervention, became Adam). As roaming houseplants with a ferocious appetite for the British public, triffids belong in this camp too.
            Beyond this mechanistic approach, artists conceived other criteria upon which to pin their hopes. For years, mimesis was the holy grail of the art world, and fueled by devices such as chiaroscuro and perspective, contributed to the appearance of Life. In this spirit, Zeuxis hoped to paint grapes so convincing, even the birds would be fooled. A substrate of this paradigm ventures beyond the looking glass, into the more emotive side of identity. Pygmalion desired a sculpture he could love; Frankenstein a bride, the Tin Man a heart. Pinocchio yearned to be a real boy, as did Leo Lionni’s wind-up-mouse. Blade Runner’s sultry replicant Rachel clung to her false memories, in the hopes that she too might be human.
            Here, Hylozoic Veil is in good company. It wants desperately to live, as evinced in the media statements generated by both Beesley and The Leonardo. Moreover, the artist’s website states that his environments pursue a “distributed emotional consciousness.” However hopeful – and Orwellian – as this sounds, this collection of disparate systems remains inert and impotent. 

            Hyperbole aside, Beesley’s work has many other worthwhile attributes including a surfeit of references that are enchanting as they are delightful. Basic geometric shapes such as bell curves, tetrahedrons, ellipses and chevrons abound. Among them, human morphologies such as tongues, limb joints, spine vertebrae and eyelashes are evoked. Woven together with exposed wires and circuit boards, this cyborg amalgam harbors three distinct landscapes. The system cascades down the museum atrium with a kind of buoyancy, as if floating in water. This brings to mind forests of seaweed or fluorescent jellyfish blooms suspended in the darker recesses of the ocean, like the underwater paintings of Alfred Kubin. With tendrils so crystalline and frozen, we could just as easily be peering into the lair of an evil Snow Queen. Here, it may be useful to know that the artist is a professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo, and possibly referencing the formidable Canadian winter. Set against a pitch-black background, we are also reminded of remote astronomical clusters, nebulae and galaxies glimpsed at by the Hubble Space Telescope. Perhaps Hylozoic Veil depicts a rogue centaurian system, the outer reaches of the Klingon empire, or a fragment of our own Milky Way? Such references are sufficient to keep me transfixed : gazing and wondering.
            Wondering.... IS this a triffid? Should we take cover? To date, hylozoic replicants have set foot in Venice, Montreal and New Orleans. Triffids tend to lie dormant for long periods of time, preferring to hide in museums and masquerade as contemporary art. Has Beesley truly imbued his work with Life? Does Salt Lake have a triffid problem? Only time will tell. Not until Hylozoic Veil breaks free from the shackles of The Leonardo, slithers up to Temple Square to embrace the golden statue of Moroni, will we know for sure.