Where the odds are stacked in favour of contagion


VISUAL ART:THE Infectiousexperience begins with each visitor being screened and electronically tagged by a couple of suitably impassive, overalled attendants.

It’s contrived but still slightly unsettling and appropriately depersonalising. After which, equipped with a fold-out guide to the exhibition, a guide closely modelled on the sheets of instructions found in boxes of pills, you can make your way with varying degrees of interactivity through a succession of installations dealing with aspects of contagion and containment. In the light of what you learn you could easily conclude that, in the real world, the odds are stacked in favour of contagion, while containment is usually costly and problematic. All of which, given current events, makes Infectiousa bit too topical for comfort.

Its topicality is perfectly encapsulated in Epidemic Planet, a presentation of the work of a team of American, Belgian and Italian researchers who have devised models, based on air-travel hubs, charting the spread of influenza viruses around the globe. One slightly perplexing implication that can be drawn from their models is that, regardless of the source, infections tend to turn up pretty quickly in Australia. Another implication, strikingly borne out in responses to the Mexican influenza outbreak, is that the practicalities of containment quickly come to involve cultural, economic, political and ethical issues. Another installation allows us to tweak the parameters determining the spread of epidemics.

The Science Gallery straddles the border between science and creativity in a more general sense, and this is reflected in the nature of the exhibits, which range from fairly hard science to visual art and pure theatre. The presentation was devised by set designer Joseph Vanek, for example. At the hard-science end of the spectrum is a working laboratory that guides you through taking and isolating a sample of your own DNA. This is fascinating in itself – you may be surprised to learn that all the necessary ingredients are readily available in the average kitchen – but there is an additional dimension. You can also take part in an ongoing immunology study relating to the work of Trinity College scientists, and check your own genetic resistance or susceptibility to malaria.

There are at least two aesthetically impressive displays. One is Karl Grimes’s set of colour photographs, printed to a uniform large scale, taken from illustrations of infected body parts as found in a varied historical literature, from orthodox medical textbooks to fairy tales. And, recalling the famous Blaschka glass models of jellyfish, Luke Jerram has made beautiful transparent glass models of viruses. His sculptures reveal a structural beauty usually obscured, he reckons, by luridly coloured diagrams designed to alarm, but still, viruses, no more than jellyfish, just aren’t going to make it into the cuddly category.

Maria Phelan invites visitors to kiss an agar plate which is then added to an array displayed on the wall. The natural flora transferred from the lips during contact is cultured and flourishes within each container. Her project comes under the heading of art rather than science, though it absolutely depends on scientific technique.

Cybernetic Bacteria 2.0has some of the trappings of a game. Designed by a research team in the UK, it is a simulation in which we track the real-time unfolding of a hybrid, artificial life form, produced by the electronic data streams of mobile phones and other portable electronic gear, combined with electro-chemical signals from bacteria.

Infectiousmaintains a sense of urgency throughout, not least because the electronic tag you’re given is likely to indicate at any moment that you’ve fallen victim to the “live epidemic simulation” and must proceed immediately to the disinfection station. It’s a hugely detailed, accessible and genuinely informative project in which learning is leavened with wit. On balance, the science probably wins out over the art, but the art more than earns its keep.

“GIVE YOURSELF a present, forgive yourself” is the motto of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s five-piece film installation, The Present, at the Temple Bar Gallery. Five monitors are mounted on tables throughout the gallery space, with a single chair in front of each. We are told that the short, fragmentary dramas that unfold sequentially on the screens offer glimpses into the personal worlds of women who have developed psychoses. Ahtila has built a substantial reputation on the basis of such strikingly realised fictions, which plunge us into disturbingly subjective worlds.

What set her apart from many other film and video artists from the first were the production values she brought to her projects, and her cinematic flair. When viewed en masse, as with Tate Modern’s survey show of her work in 2001, it is true that a certain monotony of tone emerged, a Nordic gloom, a sense that she was describing lives in purely negative terms. Her characters were tortured and troubled, teetering on the edge of, or long fallen into, despair or madness. One could say the same of Ingmar Bergman, and Ahtila’s work is hard to imagine without Bergman’s example. His redeeming qualities include his emotional insight, his dramatic sense and his visual talent.

Ahtila eschews conventional dramatic form, but her work, however bleak, is compulsively watchable nonetheless. She offers us snippets, moments. A girl, about to enter her home, instead turns away and lies down in a puddle of muddy water. A woman calmly topples a row of packed shelving in her living room, throws a mattress on top and settles down on it. She bites her fingers, she explains, cheerfully noting that she thought she would be a psychiatrist, not end up seeing one. It is the arbitrary, unexpected nature of what we see that makes it compelling. We just don’t know what’s going to come next. People do strange things, Ahtila seems to say, for obscure but compelling reasons. Implicit in her mini-dramas is a wider social critique, but it is always framed from the subjective, individual viewpoint.

MARGARET McLOUGHLIN’S print works in Timeswept, at the Original Print Gallery, features an atmospheric portrait of a partly forested landscape. In her sensitively observed images, there is a cumulative feeling that human intervention – forestry, habitation, roads – is worn down by time and weather, and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the natural setting.

InfectiousThe PresentTimeswept