Subtle Thresholds, an exhibition curated by Donald Gordon Creative Arts Award winner Fritha Langerman which explores infectious diseases and the complex inter-relationship between zoological, human and microbial worlds, at the Iziko South African Museum has been extended to 30 July 2010.
Drawing on the collections of the Iziko South African Museum, the University of Cape Town, the Wits Adler Museum, and including new artworks by Langerman, Subtle Thresholds draws attention to some of the contemporary debates surrounding biomedical images and artifacts.
Subtle Thresholds is primarily concerned with the visual representation of infectious disease, focusing particularly on its position as ‘different’, ‘outside’ and ‘other’, and noting that classifications and representations of disease are culturally as well as medically coded. Combining elements of science, art and social history, Langerman presents a collaboration between disciplines that is rarely seen in South Africa despite the many and meaningful links between said disciplines. Situated in the gallery between the social history and natural history displays, the exhibition aims to create a conceptual bridge between the two areas within the museum by presenting a visual network of the relationships between zoological, human and microbial worlds, and exposing some of the cultural and historical mythologies that have contributed to the conception of disease as a state of otherness and separation.
Langerman embraces a range of media: using projection, sculptural and drawn elements, texts and digital images, as well as objects from museum collections. Because Subtle Thresholds is concerned with the means through which images are seen (or not) and understood (or misunderstood), the exhibition makes use of devices that heighten vision: scopes, light, shadows, reflection, projections etc. As the title suggests, Subtle Thresholds investigates the tenuous boundaries that enclose both the physical body and the bodies of knowledge through which disease is understood. Working with a layering of reference and repetition of form, Langerman poses fascinating visual and theoretical questions as to what it is we ‘know’ about disease, its history, sciences and representations.
Subtle Thresholds has been germinating for two years in Langerman’s studio. It presents thousands of elements including historic medical equipment; a 68 meter timeline that includes a biblical concordance of disease together with a running list of thousands of species, light boxes with viral images made from pharmacological lab plastics, sign plates with GPS co-ordinates of disease outbreaks, electron microscope images of animal droppings in trefoil and quatrefoil-shaped frames, steel silhouettes of bacteria and 512 cut-out hands derived from art historical images of healing.
The exhibition manages to show potentially fearful items as objects of interest and beauty. “Infectious diseases are caused by organisms which are as deserving of visual attention as any other species. The exhibition suggests that within an extremely complex biological system, humans represent a very small unit,” says Langerman. “Recently evolutionary biologists have questioned the authority of Darwin’s Tree of Life with its vertical gene transfer, as findings indicate that microbes cut and paste genetic material between species at a frequent rate. This horizontal gene transfer suggests that a ‘web of life’ may be a more appropriate analogy, one that is multilayered and non-binary. This exhibition tries to find visual equivalents to this layering and interconnectivity of different systems.”
Subtle Thresholds has been made possible by funding from the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA), the National Arts Council and the National Research Foundation.
The Iziko South African Museum is open from 10am to 5pm daily. Entrance R15 per adult and free for children under 16 years. For more details visit www.iziko.org.za or call (021) 481 3800.