Science has been co-opting art for a while, perhaps to make itself more consumable or “user-friendly”. What does it mean, though, when an artist uses science as a platform to create a body of work? When is art science and science art? According to Naomi Campbell, an artist who finds herself as comfortable in the scientific arena as she does in the art world, the two disciplines aren’t so far apart as they might seem. Campbell says that “There’s an intuitive side of science that’s so close to what artists do, especially in research and in diagnosis quite often too. To really get good, there’s that level of intuition that comes into play that is so difficult sometimes that unless you let go and start having that kind of open thinking, you may never find a solution.”
The title of Campbell’s current exhibit (curated by Susanne Karbin) Bread and Circuses at The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster, New Jersey is a direct translation of the phrase “Panem et Circencus” penned by the Roman satirist Juvenal (c.55 – 127 AD) to describe the Roman Empire’s camouflage of political subterfuge by distracting the masses with entertainment and food. Campbell’s show is a carefully orchestrated mélange of installation, sculpture, and photography focused on two of the world’s main food staples, corn and rice and portrays a subtle reference to the socio-political effect of human interference in natural processes.
Michael Specter, author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives” (2009) has stated, “All the food we eat – every grain of rice and kernel of corn – has been genetically modified. None of it was here before mankind learned to cultivate crops. The question isn’t whether our food has been modified, but how.”
Indeed. Campbell has glued a line of corn kernels, organized to be read as braille, wrapping around portions of two gallery walls. Representing a portion of the honeybee’s genetic sequencing, AC TG (2016) acts as a metonymic reference to the structure of DNA. The relevance of the genetic sequencing of the honeybee to the corn in this artwork could be seen as a reference to the mysterious decrease of the honeybee population, possibly due to pesticides. As representatives of the state of global pollination, this is of some concern. Monsanto has used genetic sequencing to modify corn to include insecticide and also be herbicide resistant. Whether these facts are actually connected remains to be proven.
Umbra (2015), an archival C-print, presents corn roots in macro, floating in an ethereal space, white as a ghost. The black and white image of the root is anchored by a landscape-oriented, transparent green rectangle placed in the lower middle quarter. This window of color implies the clinical sterility of a slide under a microscope and yet there is a quiet beauty of the natural growth of the roots in a suspended in time, a perfect metaphor for the bridge between art and science.
Next to Umbra, the sculpture River (Yangtze) (2015), a wire covered with gold painted rice hangs in front of a raw cotton canvas, casting an intertwining shadow reminiscent of the DNA double helix. It is bent into a topographical representation of the Yangtze River, the life-blood of China. In 2009 the World Wildlife Fund issued the “First-ever Yangtze River Basin Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation Report” siting six points of vulnerability, describing key areas in which climate change is making an impact now and in the future on the YRB, including altering “the spatial distribution of water resources”, a decline in the production of rice and corn, deforestation, degradation of grasslands, changes in biodiversity, and social and economic impact on important cities such as Shanghai. Campbell’s portrait of the river embodies the metaphor “hanging by a thread,” that these facts bring to mind.
The fragility of our global ecosystem is reflected in Campbell’s From Here is Everywhere I (2016) and From Here is Everywhere II (2016). Stained glass leaves constructed from glass and mirror are connected to aluminum poles inserted into cement brick bases, lined up in a uniform row, with two “plants” that break from this order and one that has “transplanted” itself further away from the group, divided by a randomly draped section of synthetic grass. Copper pipes exude from the wall in an organic root-like growth. Visitors can interact with the installation by maneuvering a motorized “island” of this grass, which sports a single deformed version of these corn stalks, around the room.
Acting as a quiet yet potent set of mnemonics, Campbell’s installations and artworks echo the increasingly synthetic world we live in. One wonders if, some day, this will be our only way to connect to the world of nature that we are so radically adjusting to fit our ever-expanding economic demands.
Naomi Campbell “Bread and Circuses” April 22nd – June 11, 2016
The Center for Contemporary Art
2020 Burnt Mills Road, Bedminster, NJ 07921
Writing by Kim Power
Photographs provided by Naomi Campbell