Justine Cooper: SAVED BY SCIENCE
April 21-June 4, 2005
Australian artist, Justine Cooper premieres her recent series of large format photographs and video. Over the course of a year she captured the behind the scenes storage areas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Using a vintage wood 4x5 camera, Cooper shares rare glimpses into their massive housed collections and reveals a trail of scientific desire that reaches back into the 19th century and across the 4 corners of the Earth.
Sheer optical exuberance surfaces from a set of Graphium sarpedon butterflies. In the Victorian attic a group of donated ex-Barnum & Bailey, Ringling Brothers Circus seals, swathed in plastic wrap, await their departure to climate-controlled storage. The 21st century liquid nitrogen cooled frozen tissue collection holds a million specimens in a room the size of a studio apartment. Immense corridors of locked steel storage cabinets most powerfully express the veil of structure dropped over the complexity of nature.
Cooper deftly wended her way from basement to attic, peering into thousands of vats, drawers, corners and cupboards along the way to produce this vivid series of photographs. Her access was unprecedented as the first and only artist-in-residence at the Museum in its almost 150 year history.
I saw the stored collections as a journey where it was possible to speculate upon the historical and contemporary motivations for collecting, preserving, cataloging, and systematizing the natural world. Is it knowledge, ownership or curiosity that drives us to collect? Are we by nature obsessive, preservationist, or sentimental? In the end I was drawn to how the seemingly simple collecting and ordering of nature, albeit on a grand-scale, represents a complex desire that’s both scientific and social.
Justine Cooper’s artwork investigates the intersections between culture, science and medicine. Her projects are fueled by the ability to visualize ourselves with high-end technologies, the scientific veil of rationality dropped over the complexity of nature, and the promises of western medicine.
She is well-known for incorporating animation, video, installation, and photography, as well as medical imaging technologies such as MRI, DNA sequencing, Ultrasound and SEM (scanning electron microscopy) into her projects.
Cooper’s work is ultimately a cultural investigation. While operating from just outside the borders of medicine, science, and technology, she is neither dismissive nor blindly celebratory of them. Much of her work engages with questions about what it is to have a body, to exist in physical space and to experience one’s self materially when high tech (medical) science and computer imaging are redrawing the borders of the body proper and inverting the scale and dimensions of its appearance.
“It is this combination of aesthetically adept and acute conceptual exploration which makes Justine Cooper’s such a promising artist. She makes work which touches on profound issues for both the practice of art and science today and the practice of everyday life as a human being.”
– Patrick Crogan, Australian Art Collector magazine