flying slippers blog

Unfolding Narrative: Laura Splan's Conformations at Esther Klein Gallery

November 19, 2019  |  By Cindy Stockton Moore 

Following a three-month BioArt Residency, Laura Splan is exhibiting new work in a solo exhibition at Esther Klein Gallery. Conformations is the culmination of a residency designed by the Science Center and uCity-based biotech company, Integral Molecular.

Unfolding Narrative: Laura Splan's Conformations at Esther Klein Gallery

 

Through a variety of material metaphors, Laura Splan’s solo exhibition Conformations examines the mechanics of cellular biology – not as a futuristic vision of sanitized technology but as a process based in the present, rooted in time and labor, and tied to the physical.    A 2018 BioArt Resident, Laura Splan makes visible — and tangible — the unseen, weaving an experiential narrative of her time in Integral Molecular’s laboratory.

 

The artist begins by transforming the physical materials of the lab.  In one sculpture, a long, stainless steel shelf, hung slightly below eye level, houses a video monitor bookended by two custom-made bins of alpaca fiber.  Alpaca – like llamas and other camelids– have a unique cell structure used in the research and production of antibodies for human drugs.  On one side of Laura Splan’s sculpture, we see raw alpaca wool, cleaned and gathered.  In the other bin, the same fiber is carded, a process of combing that aligns the individual strands of fleece into a singular direction.  Nestled between the two piles of golden wool, is a mesmerizing video showing the act of processing fiber into yarn.  Set against a stark white background, we see the artist’s hands first carding, then spinning the wool, using the specialized tools of the trade. 

The artwork shares a title with the exhibition, Conformations.  The term, in a general sense, references overall structure.  In the specifics of molecular biology, it distinguishes a binary potential of proteins within a cell; their conformational state can be either folded or unfolded, another textural metaphor (proteins are –themselves– long strands of connected amino acids.)  In Splan’s work, we can see the act of spinning –separating, aligning, connecting– in parallel to the isolation and manipulation of protein receptors in the laboratory.

 

The cellular material that is studied in labs like Internal Molecular is far removed from the actuality of the animal (it comes ready-to-use in small vials,) but throughout this exhibition, Laura Splan reintroduces the physicality of that interspecies exchange.  In her sculptural intervention Lumen, visitors are instructed to sit down on a circular rug latched from llama and alpaca wool, the natural color of the fiber arranged to gradate towards an enlightened center.  The act of folding into a sitting position physically embodies a protein state change.  Now seated, the visitor is aligned with a singular pair of headphones that loops an immersive soundscape of collected field recordings, an auditory sampling of a laboratory at work.  Mindful of the humming of the machines, the din of office chatter, the rattling of glass lab equipment, the isolated viewer can simultaneously experience the tactile reality of the wool on the piled rug, feeling bits of straw still attached to the binding fibers. 

The cellular material that is studied in labs like Internal Molecular is far removed from the actuality of the animal (it comes ready-to-use in small vials,) but throughout this exhibition, Laura Splan reintroduces the physicality of that interspecies exchange.  In her sculptural intervention Lumen, visitors are instructed to sit down on a circular rug latched from llama and alpaca wool, the natural color of the fiber arranged to gradate towards an enlightened center.  The act of folding into a sitting position physically embodies a protein state change.  Now seated, the visitor is aligned with a singular pair of headphones that loops an immersive soundscape of collected field recordings, an auditory sampling of a laboratory at work.  Mindful of the humming of the machines, the din of office chatter, the rattling of glass lab equipment, the isolated viewer can simultaneously experience the tactile reality of the wool on the piled rug, feeling bits of straw still attached to the binding fibers. 

Nearby in a work entitled Contested Territories, the artist introduces another discarded byproduct: dried llama feces still attached to the raw fiber before processing.  Now in liquified form, it is contained in vials on a modified laboratory machine, a vortex mixer activated by specified Twitter hashtags: “Here, the mere mention of #globalwarming or #diversity agitates tubes filled with feces." [1]

Through a diverse range of media and techniques, Laura Splan weaves a multifarious narrative of science.  At times, Splan’s work brings to mind the Brothers Grimm, the miller’s daughter spinning straw into gold, a transmutation of material through manual labor and a bit of magic, unlocking secrets through a process of attribution. [2] The same material, straw, also forms the metaphor for Needle in a Haystack, the artist’s book of photographs and text that encapsulates her time in the lab.  Straw –or more specifically hay– is food for the llamas and alpacas, forming a connection between mundane, physical realities and their allegorical counterparts.  In the back gallery, visitors can rest on a bale of hay under a neon sign reading Sit Around and Wait, a snippet of conversation taken from her time in the lab, now beautifully memorialized in white light. 

Like the carding and spinning of the wool, Laura Splan gathers her experiences in the laboratory, aligns them with shared cultural tropes, and folds them together, creating art that connects complex concepts with precision and restraint.  The inherent poetics of Splan’s work is made physical through a tactile understanding of material.  The viewer is reminded of the shared labor (of the scientists in the lab/of the artist in her studio) through repetitive actions of their respective trades: the mindful searching of each looking to unlock a new potential.  By slowing down –and at times suspending– this act of searching, Laura Splan invites a collective story of scientific discovery: one of shared labor, unfolding over time. This telling does not shy away from the complexities and conflicts of the narrative.  We are reminded of the bodies of animals also at work, and ultimately of our own fallible bodies, that science is working –so laboriously– to save.

 

Photo Credit: Jaime Alvarez

 

 

[1] “Since taking office, the Trump administration has controversially advised how to improve the chances of receiving research funding with the suggestion to avoid words and phrases like “vulnerable”, “diversity”, “entitlement”, “transgender”, “fetus”, “evidence-based”, and “science-based".  The administration has also refused to sign statements that mention “climate change”. Integral Molecular scientist, Ben Doranz added the timely contribution of #vaccination to this growing list of terms.” -from the exhibition identification list, Conformations, October 2019

 

[2] Keys are another important signifier in this layered exhibition.

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