Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts’ upcoming exhibition Biomess is literally living proof of the creative opportunities available when the state’s cultural institutions relax their usual aversion to risk.
The exhibition is the end result of a near decade-long quest to show their work in the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA), despite having achieved significant success overseas.
They initiated the Tissue Culture and Art Project in 1996 with the University of Western Australia’s school of anatomy and human biology.
After expanding their network through a residence at the Harvard Medical School, they secured a Lotterywest grant in 2000, and constructed a permanent centre for artistic biological research, called SymbioticA.
“It makes lots of sense to park ourselves in a biological science department because the most radical shifts in the way we treat life happens here within the context of science,” Mr Catts told Business News.
“But we felt we needed to engage with it and scrutinise it from a cultural perspective.”
Having gained degrees in product design and photography, respectively, Mr Catts and Ms Zurr became interested in the collision between biology and design, and worked with scientists to further their skills in growing organisms in the lab.
“Once you actually work with the living material, it’s much more interesting and evocative than representing it,” Ms Zurr said.
In 1998, they displayed a photographic exhibition at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), but discounted the possibility of exhibiting live artworks.
Two decades later, they exhibit living artworks in galleries and museums across the world, having featured at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, and the National Art Museum of China.
“Museums and galleries are places of death, in a sense, because they are designed to keep dead things as dead as possible for as long as possible,” Mr Catts said.
“So what does it mean to bring something which is alive into the gallery?”
Their Biomess exhibition has been installed at the Art Gallery of WA until early December, and features animal specimens from the Western Australian Museum, live aquarium animals, and the artists’ own laboratory-grown living tissue culture.
The exhibition is part of the wider Unhallowed Arts Festival by SymbioticA, which celebrates the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and includes events at UWA, PICA, and the State Library.
Lotterywest and the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries are supporting the festival.
“We are in a position where we have to refuse a lot of invitations to display our work internationally because we don’t have time, but to show it locally we have to work hard,” Mr Catts said.
He highlighted this as a major factor in many artists exhibiting overseas, giving Australia a reputation in arts and technology not always reflected within the country.
Even the current exhibition came about almost 10 years after AGWA director Stefano Carboni initially expressed interest.
“That’s to do with the risk-averse nature of many of our institutions,” Mr Catts said.
“It’s even scarier for some galleries to take the risk, both in terms of (managing) living art, but also the perception of the public.”
He said he had consistently seen a high level of public interest in biological art, but galleries often pre-empted a negative response.
Mr Catts believes there is a divide in the Australian cultural landscape between funding bodies and established venues.
“The Australia Council and the state funding are fairly progressive in the way they think about supporting art,” he said.
“But the venues in Australia are fairly conservative.”