Is it possible to create an art exhibition for infants and adults alike? And if so, why exhibit art for babies, who cannot intellectually relate to the concept of art? Small children lack the common conventions for interpreting art, so how do they react to the works and the environment? But perhaps sometimes our grown-up perceptions stand in the way of our own experience of art. Can the sensuality and physicalness of babies open new doors for us, and create the conditions for a common experience?
Babies approach their environment with no apparent rational goals or methods. Driven by playfulness, pleasure and inquisitiveness, they take on their new universe by instantly scanning the environment and reflecting themselves in their discoveries. An infant’s method of grasping its new world can be compared with an artist’s or researcher’s desire to explore hitherto unknown territories, tirelessly testing new visions and hypotheses against reality. The latest international brain research also indicates that the foundations of our human abilities of creativity and improvisation are laid in infancy. A child’s brain develops incredibly rapidly in the first few years of life and the neural network that develops during this period makes the child extremely receptive to various forms of expression, such as colour, light, sound, shapes and symbols. A child’s capacity to take in large amounts of information from all sources without preconceptions and translate them into usable skills may therefore be much greater than that of an adult.
Research also supports the perspective that babies in fact get a lot out of art. Experiencing artistic forms of expression at an early age seems to be able to expand our norms and thereby our ability to understand opportunities that exist outside our current awareness. Ultimately it’s about our creative and improvisational ability, the foundation on which all development is based. These are themes and questions that have been tested in discussions, meetings and experiments over a three-year period at Färgfabriken. The process was both analytical and dynamic, including artists, architects, scientists, philosophers and many others. We thank everyone who has contributed their experience, knowledge and ideas.
The idea for the layout of the exhibition, in the shape of twisting tentacles, arose when we saw a picture of a premature baby hugging a tiny crocheted octopus. It turns out that pre-terms tend to get tangled up in all the tubes in their incubators and become upset when they are put back in order. A father happened to have a crocheted octopus, which he gave his child. When she grasped its umbilical-like tentacles, her heart rate leveled out and her oxygenation improved. The news resulted in a storm of crocheted octopuses being sent to all the nation’s NICU departments.
An octopus is completely different from humans, with its eight arms, nine brains and three hearts. Its ability to adapt to the environment and camouflage itself with a variety of colours can be used as analogies to how we humans approach the world – to understand and live in it. The hub of the urSenses (urSinnen) exhibition has three hearts: Emotions, ethics and aesthetics. Human beings create art. We tell stories and we think about ourselves. The exhibition urSenses (urSinnen) is about this shared human trait.
Anette Andersson, Artikel 31
In the project room: Leif Brodersen
Curator: Mats Bigert
with Bigert & Bergström's work, "The Wave," 2014. Photos: Mathias Johansson
PARTICIPATING ARTISTS / DISPLAYED WORKS
Candice Breitz is a South African video artist who lives and works in Berlin. She has created many internationally acclaimed video installations on themes of identity and group membership.
For urSinnen we have chosen to present a part of the video work “Factum” from 2009. It portrays the Canadian identical twins Natalyn and Jocelyn Tremblay side-by-side in an in-depth interview in a stereoscopic video installation. Candice Breitz cross-cuts between them, creating a fascinating image of two people being woven together. A discussion arises between the twins dealing with questions about sexuality, nationality, nature and nurture. Gradually it results in a story of how our own personality is sculpted in interaction with and through mirroring of others.
One important discovery in neuroscience in the past 20 years is mirror neurons. Located in the Broca’s area of the brain, these neurons allow us to experience the emotional state of people around us. We can feel empathy with someone’s situation without experiencing it ourselves. Emotions are infectious. Simple examples are yawning when others yawn or involuntarily smiling when another person laughs. This mirroring capacity and the ability to feel deep belonging are a foundation of humanity. In infants, these neurons are extremely active. When a baby looks at its mother, we can see its facial expressions and moods change in symbiosis with hers. The infant believes it is still a part of her, and her emotions are the baby’s emotions.
In contrast to singleton children, who eventually realise that they are individuals, twins often experience this union throughout their lives. This is why it is interesting to look at “Factum Tremblay” with the thought of our mirror neurons in mind. The visual duplication of the twins on the dual plasma screens enhances the theme of how their lives are shaped through constant reflection of one another. The two sisters’ conversation about their common life is deeply sympathetic. Candice’s cross-cutting montage adds something new to a long tradition of visual interview techniques.
For the smallest babies watching this film, Natalyn and Jocelyn’s facial expressions, gestures and rapid-fire discussion will enchant them. Because the quality of the film reaches beyond the linguistic level and opens a porthole into the lighted room of mirror neurons.
Training Prosthetic Silicone
Lars Siltberg is a Swedish artist who is interested in the development of the human body in a technological world. The centerpiece of his video works is the portrayal of dreams of a new world and how technology, or the body, might get there. These correlations affect our view of ourselves and remind us of how we are constantly evolving into something new, beyond what we currently perceive as human.
In the video work “Training Prosthetic Silicone”, which is projected in the final room of the exhibition, a flood of new life forms emerges. A green skin-like mass moves, grows and contorts. It is clearly in a developmental phase – it’s just hard to see in what direction. The only thing that doesn’t change is its green colour. The intense shade, somewhere between green and yellow, is the complementary colour to human skin tones and is therefore used in digital film production as what is called a chromakey colour for special effects in film, TV and photography. Green screen technology is used to separate out actors from the background or vice versa, and the images can be digitally alternated or combined with photographic or computer-generated images. A person is thus separated from the artificial, becoming a remnant that might well be retouched out of the picture with the click of a mouse.
Our children are growing up in an era permeated by computers’ ability to calculate and create artificial intelligence. But to date, we have not been able to create biological life according to the classic definitions. Intuition tells us, however, that in a not-too-distant future there will be biological units, self-supporting organisms, are grown in tanks, powered by photosynthesis, and are green all the way through.
The Lost Arcadia
A newborn’s innate reflex to suck and taste everything in the first year of life is reminiscent of the way an octopus approaches the world. The suction cups on its tentacles not only serve as hands and feet, but also as taste buds, providing sensory information to give the animal an understanding of its surroundings. The octopus investigates the world around it by combining its senses into new meta-senses. In human beings, we could call inquisitiveness a sort of meta-sense, combining several pleasurable instincts to create a longing for the unknown – something we can’t quite explain and therefore simply must investigate. One of the ambitions of urSinnen is to create that kind of a pull that instinctively attracts visitors to discover new experiences.
The Swedish artist Ebba Matz’s installation “The Lost Arcadia” does so literally; visitors cannot resist crawling in under the funnel-shaped pavilion of red canvas and white parachute silk draping down the whole height of the art gallery. When they do, they are caught in a tactile suction cup, where they must submit to being tasted, felt and examined by the artwork itself. The exhibit becomes a living system in which visitors are the oxygen-bearing blood cells. After spending time in this living cocoon, visitors are spit back out into the exhibition – transformed and reborn, their curiosity quelled.
Ebba Matz is a Swedish artist who lives and works in Stockholm. She has created many large-scale public sculptures and installations that examined the boundaries between personal and public. How the fragile membrane that constitutes our “self” also works as a semipermeable skin that lets various impulses pass in and out while others are reflected. In Ebba’s works, art is not simply a projection surface, but also a stage on which we move and with whose aid we can orient ourselves in the world.
Goran Kajfes, David Österberg
Goran Kajfes and David Österberg are two Swedish musicians who create a wide range of expressions through their extensive network and their love of experimenting with all things musical. Over the past two years they’ve been working on an interactive audio installation, which for the urSinnen exhibition has been materialised in the form of a batysphere. This is a spherical metal tank, related to the submarines Jacques Cousteau used to dive into deep-sea trenches, the few parts of the world that still remain unexplored.
The “Batysphere” balances on the point of one of the tentacles on the octopus-shaped rubber mat. As if it had been dragged ashore by a giant Kraken, the mythical sea monster said to be able to sink ships. An involuntary ascension not unlike our own birth, in which the body is suddenly dragged out of a nine-month-long aquatic existence. We gasp for breath and scream out our displeasure at being torn from the cosy environment we had in utero.
In the first year of life our consciousness remains in the same holistic sea of our foetal development, in which the boundary between what is me and what is the rest of the world has not yet been formulated. Not until an age of 15–18 months does our self-awareness catch sight of itself on some reflective ocean surface. Many of us then spend a lifetime trying to get back to that original state in which we were more like sea creatures than landlubbers. Kajfes and Österberg’s installation lets visitors return to those primal regions. With the knobs and handwheels within the “Batysphere”, visitors can open the depths of their minds and get to the bottom of themselves through an interactive journey of sound.
At the back of the exhibition room at Färgfabriken stands a dark grey house in shadow. One of the tentacles reaches out to its doorway, through which visitors can go in to a video installation by the Canadian artist Kevin Schmidt. His work “EDM House” from 2012 is a video projection featuring a deserted house at the edge of a forest. During the three months that Kevin spent in the house, he remodelled it into a programmable light installation. The film shows the house at dusk, blinking and pulsating to the beat of an electronic dance track. A mental dwelling overgrown by a technological network whose flickering lights attract visitors in the same way that insects swarm around a porch light on a dark summer night.
The pulsating rainbow flashes of the house are reminiscent of a brain researcher’s experiments injecting fluorescent proteins into the brains of mice to study unknown neurological connections. Synapses and axons, chemical substances and electricity are the machinery of the brain, the generators of every brilliant thought and mundane idea. The questions posed in Kevin’s installation include how consciousness occurs and how it can be depicted. Or is the house possessed by a Vitreledonella – a glass octopus – that has pushed its luminous body out of the Mariana trench and ended up on the roof? Or is the video work perhaps a visualisation of the brain of a newborn infant, unable to sort all the impressions of the world into sensory categories, instead experiencing life as an unfiltered synesthetic fireworks display?
Kevin Schmidt’s previous works are all characterised by multiple possible interpretations, as he often works with creating mutations of popular culture, technology and surrounding nature. Schmidt currently lives and works in Braunschweig, Germany.
Throughout history, a variety of conflicting ideas have been proposed regarding the minds of infants. They have often been presented as unquestioned truths, and the spectrum of thoughts has ranged from children being born evil and needing to be civilised, to being born as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, on which the experiences of life are written in chalk. Modern epigenetic research shows that certain experiences in life can be passed on in our genes. These brief examples show that our perspective on babies, or how we choose to see our offspring, is directly linked to contemporary perceptions and scientific ideas.
In the world of the American artist Nina Katchadourian, images and phenomena are given new meaning by being connected to one another in unusual ways. For urSinnen, Nina has created a new work that hangs in the hub of the exhibition, the central room shaped like the three hearts of an octopus. Here, visitors can lie on the soft floor and view the world from a “Baby POV” – a large mobile consisting of a series of round photographs of various sizes. The pictures are extreme close-ups of babies’ eyes. Nina’s point of departure was the idea of how an infant must perceive its own situation, there in its cradle, staring up at a lot of grown-up faces and hanging plastic bits in the form of colourful mobiles – sometimes called “baby gyms”. She turned the perspective around and created a work that makes us see the baby the way the baby sees us.
What emerges is a branching canopy of eyes, in which the varying emotions and reflections in the babies’ eyes create a flow chart of associations. In one of the pupils we see the shapes of the parents, or parts of the toys Nina used to distract the babies. The emotions radiate from the eyes like lanterns – joy and sorrow, excitement and worry. The artist tells how surprised she was by the results, how different the eyes turned out to be; some looked more like those of sea creatures, like a whale or an octopus, than of people. Other eyes appeared to belong to an old person, although the infant was only three months old.
Lundahl & Seitl
Our ability to imagine something other than what is before us is an important part of what makes us human, and perhaps that which most distinguishes us from other animals. There is no question that the imagination, or the brain’s capacity to stimulate itself, is fundamental to our survival. It’s an ability that we’re born with, which we develop and can train up. Research shows that babies who are given stimulation and human connections more easily develop those “feelers” that are so important for human imagination.
Lundahl & Seitl’s installation “Vessel” can be seen as a laboratory for this reasoning, in which visitors are given an experience largely created by their own internal sensations. By positioning the visitors horizontally, the artists also draw a line under the classic approach to art work. Infants and adults experience the piece on the same plane as they are gradually propelled through the darkness and “born” into the exhibit.
This passage forms the first tentacle of the exhibition, where the black octopus ink causes our travellers to descend into disorienting darkness. The journey goes through the internal landscape of the body, as well as out into space. Along the way, the vessel can be experienced as both the womb and a space capsule.
The Swedish artists Lundahl and Seitl have mainly worked with walks through various institutions in which the soul of the place has been changed through sound, voices and stories. The visitors are often led blindfolded or through darkness, and feel themselves teleported to another place.
Water Colour Lamp
Simon Heijdens is a Dutch artist living in the UK. He has received much international acclaim for his kinetic and interactive light sculptures and projections. For urSinnen, Simon has chosen to further develop his work “Water Colour Lamp”, which here is presented as a droplet-shaped solitaire piece in the shape of a drop of water. Like the all-seeing eye of an octopus (the only animal that can view its world in 360°), Simon’s Water Colour Lamp hovers over the extension of a tentacle, where it spreads its multi-coloured light. The work consists of a glass container filled with fluid in which a beam of light inexplicably splits into colours, as if a drop of ink had fallen into a glass of water.
To a small child, the world is a magical place, where seemingly abstract or unexplainable phenomena take on unique meanings. This reflects one of our most significant qualities, the fact that we are very good at discerning patterns. We tend to see images and shapes in the most chaotic messes, which in turn reflects the fact that our brains abhor disorder. We simply cannot resist creating “meaning”, even out of things that seem completely meaningless. For a baby, this trait is a confusing ability, because its brain has not yet learned to rationalise these impressions. This is what gives the sense of magic, that much of what happens in our early lives seems to possess a soul of its own or a supernatural character. As adults, we learn to accept explanations of the inexplicable. For example when someone tries to explain higher dimensions by comparing the two-dimensional shadow of a fruit with the fruit itself, which in turn is a three-dimensional shadow of a higher dimension. Like this mind-expanding and confusing explanation, Simon’s sculpture expands the room through the shadows cast by the moving colours in the fluid. The lamp becomes a reversed eye in which the light that usually punctures the pupil instead travels out of the lens and paints a fluid image on the centre of the glass body. Simon works in a tradition of artists, scientists and designers who utilise the new opportunities of emerging technologies to find new ways of representing our world. We must not forget that the magic lantern, zoetrope, diorama or Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographs were the hottest media of their eras. As we gaze in wonder at the Occulus Rift or Google Glass, we should remember to place these new visualisation methods on a historical timeline in which previous optical technologies were equally fascinating and ground-breaking.
Bigert & Bergström are two Swedish artists who have been collaborating for nearly 30 years. They have created a wide range of different types of art projects, but have above all worked with sculptural installations that activate many senses at once. For urSinnen, B&B – in collaboration with Elisabeth Norebäck and Lotten Jungmar from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm – have developed a moving sculpture that is a direct physical extension of the tentacles of the exhibition. “The Wave” is a tactile sculpture that the visitors can sit or lie on. Throughout the oblong, sweeping shape flows a wave movement that gives you a sense of being on a living creature or out at sea. Research has shown that very small children do not always differentiate between a robot and a living being. For example, if a robotic bunny is harmed before the eyes of a small child, it can generate the same emotional reactions as if a living creature were being abused. Similar reactions have been registered in elderly people, often with dementia conditions, who became more relaxed after stroking a robotic seal.
The question is not whether machines, or art itself, should replace human contact and touch, but how we can develop these complements into interesting objects and situations.
Thus, Bigert & Bergström’s “The Wave” becomes a platform in which visitors can physically communicate with the artwork. Because what is communication, if not waves passing through various media? Air, water and soil, all of these materials can transport waves. Even our own nerve impulses, when we stroke another’s skin or pat a dog, can be classified as wave shapes or oscillations in an electric field. For the very smallest children, this tactile communication is crucial. Because, while an octopus can grow a new tentacle if one is cut off, a child who receives no tactile input in the earliest days of life will have much more difficulty re-growing the “feelers” that have atrophied.
Threads of Life
We invited a group of elderly people to participate in urSinnen by crocheting a specially designed octopus. The artisans will work daily producing octopuses, which will gradually form an island of little yarn molluscs, creating a link between the two extremes of age. A stretched-out handicraft twisting its threads from the fragile beginnings of life to old age, when we are said to return to our childhood and back to square one.
It would be lovely if the future could relate to those octopuses our tiny hands grasped in the incubator – the technology that in one fell swoop decimated infant mortality in the early 20th century. Incubators are still a necessity for the development of pre-term infants, but the octopus is a welcome complement – a soft, colourful alien contrasting sharply with the mechanical life-support system. The tiny crocheted mollusc that the baby tangles itself in becomes a clear analogy to how important art in all its forms is for our very survival.
Mats Bigert, Curator
EXHIBITION CREDITS Producer Anette Andersson, Artikel 31 Curator Mats Bigert Texts Anette Andersson, introduction Mats Bigert, artist/art work Participating artists Bigert&Bergström Candice Breitz Simon Heijdens Goran Kaijfes Nina Katchadourian Lundahl&Seitl Ebba Matz Kevin Schmidt Lars Siltberg David Österberg Project room Leif Brodersen
Technical consultant Lars Hässler Exhibition technician Jens Lind Exhibition assistants Kristofer Hedberg Igor Holtermann urSinnen octopus Tomas Robefelt Graphic design Momentality Printing TMG Sthlm, 2014 Special and great thanks to Panasonic, Kvadrat, Babydjungeln.se KTH – Lotten Jungmar & Elisabeth Norebäck