Living Systems as Readymade and the Question of Memory




Dixon, Elsabé

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The luxury of exploration that was afforded me during my time at George Mason University and my pursuit of investigating the use of live organisms in conjunction with symbiotic systems and audience involvement, led me on a journey of both failed attempts as well as successful and meaningful analysis. Much like a scientist I worked with a control group and an experimental group. The silkworms were the constant in every one of the three projects completed in the summers of 2010 and 2011. The audience, the symbol and the artistic, cultural and sustainable systems were the variables. I used live silkworms, because for me, it references identity. As the artist Katharina Fritsch delved into her childhood experience and absorption of folk tales to extract her symbiotic stances and allegorical sequences in her large sculpture projects, I drew from my own childhood experiences growing up in South Africa as a descendent of French silk weavers, the symbiotic sequences associated with sericulture or the raising of silkworms. We are, as the American Contemporary sculptor Bob Gober so aptly states, prisoners of our own cultures and cultural iconography. As an immigrant I am interested in the transfer possibilities and communication possibilities of cultural messages in sequential practices. By using the silkworm as a symbol or code for sequential action I have tried to make alterations, accommodations and hopefully also created a meaningful dialogue pertaining to natural life cycles, resources, and sustainable systems in post modern society. The first installation focused on the theoretical work of Roland Barthes who asserted that the audience plays a central role in creating meaning within a work of art. This work was completed in the summer of 2010, involved the Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria School systems, and had – all in all - about 400 participants. Also influencing this particular work was Bourriauds Relational Aesthetics and the more ideological approach, which is outlined in the writing of Claire Bishop. The final exhibit of the Living Sculpture that summer of 2010, took place in Washington DC at 1275 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW and was sponsored by the Washington Sculptors Group. The second show involved Rorschach prints and signifiers pertaining to the theoretical work of Jean Baudrillard and his ‘critique of the political economy of the sign” . Baudrillard’s work such as Simulcra and Simulations in which he investigated the relationship between reality, symbols and society inspired the second installation in which silkworms “erased” images with silk. This show combined the work created by the audience in the summer of 2010 as well as six large oil paintings of colorful Rorschach prints set up as tables, which were then gradually spun over by the silkworms. The carefully hand crafted images in the oil paintings were slowly almost completely “erased” by the organic spinners. This show took place at the Montpelier Art Center in MD and the curators theme was “Inside/Outside”. I wanted to juxtapose the two dimensional, handcrafted paintings inside the traditional picture plane with the live organic Bombyx Mori outside the picture plane. I also wanted to create a dialogue about Heidegger’s concept of “subjectivity” and “objectivity”. What was the subject – worms - and what was the object – canvas - and how did the interaction of both convey meaning? The last show involved placing spinning silkworms on mirrors and also allowing the audience to observe the full life cycle of the Bombyx Mori in the gallery setting. A live pod with mirror segments and organic paper and mulberry bark constructions revealed the spinners spinning cocoons, emerging as moths, mating, laying eggs and dying. The show took place at the Chroma Projects Art Laboratory in Charlottesville, Va. and the curator’s theme was “Fecundity”. This work was cultivated through Jean Boudrillard’s 1987 essay: the Ecstasy of Communication in which he rejects the idea of the object as mirror or “scene” of the real and instead advocates for a symbolic exchange in which the status of the object’s consumption goes beyond exchange and use, beyond value and equivalence. The description of the universe in the life cycle of the silk worm aimed to be a projective, imaginary and symbolic correspondence to the object status as “mirror” of the subject. By actually using mirrors as pedestals into which an organic universe is reflected I hoped to deconstruct the image as “scene” or mirror of the real. My aim was to illustrate Richard Rorty’s essay Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” in which he states that what we see should be a matter of conversation and social practice rather than a mirror of nature. The postmodernist shift should not be characterized as from nature to culture but as a shift in elocutionary mode from history to discourse. By placing live organisms on a platform I feel I am starting a discourse on nature and our current relation to it in history. I am trying to call attention to living organisms, which lie outside the realm of the screen. My thesis show will hold the “artifacts” of these three summer installations; no live organisms will activate the objects. It has been my aim to be able to present the “after effect” of the work with live organisms in a succinct academic presentation. The last chapter of my thesis will explain how I do this, and will be a discourse on methodology used in my work, which I have appropriated from various sources.



Sculpture, Silk Worms, Installation, Seri Culture, Organic Medium, Contemporary