Are we running out of ways to display science in museums and galleries? At the start of the 20th century, London’s Science Museum paved the way with its mixture of educational maquettes and industry partnerships.
San Francisco’s Exploratorium broke the mould in the 1960s by making scientific enquiry an interactive experience. By the early 2000s, “SciArt” was emphasising interdisciplinary collaborations between scientists and artists, bringing different forms of experimentation and knowledge together, and created more than its fair share of bright and attractive graphics made with high-end imaging technology.
Hot on the heels of this movement, Dublin’s Science Gallery opened in 2008, creating a public engagement venue out of a disused corner of Trinity College. Four years later, it launched a global network of Science Galleries to “ignite curiosity and discovery where art and science collide”.
The Science Gallery London, in association with King’s College, opened last year, and will be followed by venues in Bangalore, Melbourne and Venice over the next two years.
On Edge is the fourth major exhibition and season at the gallery’s well-appointed building in London Bridge, nestling in the shadow of the Shard at Guy’s Hospital. Previous shows have tackled addiction, astrophysics and anatomical prostheses.
Anxiety seems a logical progression: a feeling we’re all familiar with, a fertile area of research, and a topic of frequent concern to artists. Accompanying the exhibition is a season of events including workshops, discussions and a zine fair.
On arrival, visitors’ first hint of anxiety arrives in the gift shop, at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the gallery. Harold Offeh’s Mindfully Dizzy is a shifting, vertiginous table with shapes and images based on the artist’s work with psychiatric patients.
It draws you in just as it declares: “You’ll get dizzy, don’t look down.” Hung above the staircase, Suzanne Treister’s series of Post-Surveillance Art banners suggest that anxiety is a condition forced on us from the outside world.
Once you reach the top of the stairs, however, you’ll find works dealing with rather more serious forms of anxiety. Leah Clements’ film work, To Not Follow Under, mixes up the accounts of a diving instructor and a neurologist dealing with anxiety-related sleep disorders, bringing together different ideas of escape and release.
Next to it, Sarah Howe’s Consider Falling looks at anxiety disorders of depersonalisation and derealisation – when a person feels detached from the world and unable to emote. Mirrors and geometric shapes clip the outlines of screens displaying looping, almost ritual, gestures. It’s an intriguing but almost too literal suggestion of how our most intimate selves might be fragmented by anxiety.
The exhibition steers clear of literal interpretations or presentations of the science. The presence of actual research is real: in a modest resource area, a questionnaire and display by Kris de Meyer and Lucy Hubble-Rose tracks the relationship between our personal anxiety and how able we feel to act on climate change. You can also sign up to a longer-term study tracing the genetic links to anxiety and depression.
Should a show about anxiety attempt to induce anxiety in visitors, as a demonstration of effect? As a middle-aged white man (unlike, thankfully, most of the artists in this show), I find myself as at ease in a museum or gallery as in my own home.
But even I notice, as I listen to Cian McConn’s Some People Have No Shoes, a sound piece about other people’s problems, that I’m able to look out of the window at people passing through the spaces of Guy’s. There’s nothing claustrophobic or enclosed about the Science Gallery: plenty of space and short, clear interpretive texts make for a relaxed visit.
The only artwork that actively sets out to induce anxiety is Benedict Drew’s cheeky The Bad Feel Loops, which stays with the trouble of a chaotic and overwhelming world, throwing shuddering and jumping found footage, ominous subtitles, threatening whispers and flashing lights at you. It has a good go, but ultimately feels more like an intellectual, rather than a visceral, experience of anxiety.
In a similarly cerebral vein, Cally Spooner’s Notes on Humiliation presents excerpts from an interview with psychologist Isabel Valli considering the idea of “hysteria” as a means of denigrating personal and political protest. Over the interview, Spooner has sketched human adrenal glands, the body’s power station of stress hormones.
Hedging its bets
Is anxiety a debilitating pathology or a cultural mood? On Edge hedges its bets. On the one hand, works such as Howe’s and Clements’ suggest a deep engagement with anxiety as an illness; on the other, Drew and Spooner are free to play with its cultural and political associations.
Dealing with the subject in this way, there’s an ever-present danger that as visitors, we might plummet through the trapdoor of imaginative empathy, and falsely consider ourselves able to understand lives blighted by mental illness as an extension of our own anxious moods.
But by including multiple approaches, curator Mette Kjærgaard Præst has produced an exhibition that feels neither as earnest as “science communication” nor as flippant as some contemporary art.
On Edge feels slight compared with the gallery’s opening show on addiction, Hooked, which seemed to take up more space and find more angles with which to tackle its subject. Nevertheless, On Edge packs a punch through a small but well-chosen selection of works and artists.
It’s not just the careful relationship with science that lends this exhibition its depth. The works with the deepest resonance, such as Howe’s and Offeh’s, have been created in partnership with patients as well as doctors, experts in their own lived experience of anxiety and related conditions.
Looking for the authority that informs exhibitions beyond the traditional domains of academia is an approach that is being explored in all parts of the museum world, from medicine to ethnography. Perhaps you have to move beyond the scientists to find new ways to exhibit science.
Danny Birchall is the digital content manager at the Wellcome Collection, London
- Cost £150,000
- Main funder Science Gallery London
- Architect Plaid
- Exhibition design Each
- Graphic design Each
- Interpretation Mette Kjaergaard Praest
- Curation Mette Kjaergaard Praest
- Advisers Thalia Eley, King’s College London; Colette Hirsch, King’s College London; Errol Francis, Culture&
- Exhibition ends 19 January 2020
- Admission Free