Arnolfini, Bristol, and touring

Art Monthly, Issue 275, Apr 2004

'Wonderful' is highly polished. The credits include exhibition designers, graphic designers, filmmakers, web and CD-Rom designers. There is a free catalogue (which contains Adam Chodzko's contribution, Imagine This Doughnut...), there are educational videos, there is a conference, a day of performance (including Richard Dedomenici's CowBoard), a programme of educational lectures, and more. AA road signs on approach roads direct traffic to 'Wonderful'. Clearly a lot of thought, energy and money - it is a NESTA and Wellcome Trust project - have gone into this event, and the whole project is geared to creating an accessible, awe-inspiring exhibition. The artists, however, seem to have had other ideas.

Most of the artworks are obscure, difficult, or unapologetically conceptual, and only a couple inspire any real sense of wonder. Far from being a damning criticism, however, the result is a more thoughtful show than the blandly upbeat title suggests.

Christine Borland, for example, presents an extremely subtle work, HeLa Hot. Her space (each artist has their own designer box to exhibit in) consists of white walls, a microscope focused on the inside of a glass flask, a small monitor, and an A4 text statement. The monitor is wired to the microscope and shows some cells suspended in a nutrient solution. Apart from the monitor, this is a common lab set-up, and not much to look at. The text informs us that we are looking at HeLa cells, which are tumour cells with an unusually fast growth rate, and hence ideal for scientific study. They are used in labs around the world and can be purchased from scientific-supply companies.

However, Borland's text goes on to state that HeLa cells are so called because they originate from the tumour that killed the 31-year-old African-American woman Henrietta Lacks back in the 50s. Each HeLa cell contains Lacks' DNA, and it is supposed that there are more of her cells in existence now than there were when she was alive. Furthermore, Lacks' surviving children only discovered that their mother's cells had become a staple of the life sciences when they themselves were asked to provide DNA samples for comparative study some 20 years after her death. Borland subtly transforms a simple presentation of standard lab apparatus into a hot ethical question by revealing the social history of the specimen.

Although Borland's is one of the most powerful works on show, it is quiet and slow-burning. What would those unfamiliar with the artist's modus operandi make of it? Certainly the scientist who was leading a tour around the exhibition during my visit - the entertaining and informative Dr Colin M Dayan - didn't really know what to make of it.

A more obvious highlighting of ethical dilemmas can be found in Choice by Kerry Morrison and Alicia Prowse. This is the most profound collaboration in the exhibition: in the sense that the scientist and the artist have jointly developed a project unlike either's usual practice. The work in question is a vending machine containing packets of Himalayan Balsam seeds. Stand in front of the cabinet and a soundtrack explains the plant's rapid spread and its effect on landscapes where it has been introduced. If you sign a contract stating that you have read the accompanying information and are over 16, you will be given a token to spend in the machine, taking away some seeds to either plant or not. It's a simple idea, but the issue is given tremendous urgency through the use of the vending machine (suggesting both disposability and the power of the consumer) and the contract (emphasising responsibility).

Yet another interesting but visually bland work is Peter Fend's Urban Extrusion. This relies on the pedagogical text-and-image display techniques of 70s Conceptualism to explore the environmentally intriguing possibility that urban waste could be broken down, reformed into feathers and reabsorbed into the ecosystem. While this stretches beyond current scientific procedures (feathers cannot currently be grown industrially), the work displays the kind of joined-up thinking that politicians talk about and artists actually do.

The most perplexing piece in the exhibition is a video by Dorothy Cross. This features a nude swimmer floating in a lake filled with jellyfish, and is part of a larger project. Meanwhile Third Angel's contribution, a video about the psychological experience of time, is more playful and accessible, making it more effective. But to see anything visually wonderful you have to find Jane Prophet's work. Her collaboration with stem-cell scientist Neil Theise results in several complicated pieces. One of these, Staining Space, consists of a glass tank containing a model tree and a three-dimensional grid of acrylic threads. Crystals form on the grid, manifesting the space in a manner analogous to the scientific technique of staining organic matter to make its structure visible.

The stand-out work in the exhibition, the one that everyone will remember, is Under the Blood by Jordan Baseman and Francis Wells. This 13-minute film depicts open-heart surgery filmed in close up with a handheld camera. The soundtrack consists of moody background music and audio clips of a sermon by the American evangelist Billy Graham. It sounds shocking, and it is. It sounds cheap, but it's not; this could have been a very bad artwork, but Baseman has clearly been in awe of the procedure and treats it as a revelatory experience. He has produced an astonishingly physical video, and even Wells - an experienced surgeon - has said that the film is actually a more visceral experience than being in the operating theatre. The result is a kind of medical sublime bearing witness to the transformation of a body into meat and back into a living body again (the heart is stopped indefinitely during the procedure). By avoiding gratuity, Baseman has produced a compelling work that lives up to the exhibition's title.

While there is something medieval about Baseman's film, the 'Wonderful' project as a whole is more Renaissance in intention. It is something of a Holy Grail for curators to bring art and science together - or back together, if we believe that Leonardo da Vinci represents the way it used to be. While art and science share many qualities, notably inquisitiveness and invention, the modern drive towards specialisation has forced the two fields apart. In fact, this specialisation has also fragmented the disciplines themselves, so when people talk of bringing art and science together, you have to wonder: what kind of art and what kind of science?

In many sci-art events, the most obvious quality that both parties share is a fundamental misunderstanding of each other's activities. Thankfully, 'Wonderful' gave the participants the opportunity to work together over an extended period of time, and much of this seems to have been spent giving crash courses in each discipline. And that is how the project should be seen: while some of the works are deliberately underwhelming - seemingly anathema to the exhibition's intentions - this is because the real action is behind the scenes, where the artists and the scientists have developed an expanded understanding of each other's practices. This is why it only makes sense to think about 'Wonderful' as a broad project, rather than this iceberg-tip touring exhibition. Take Alexa Wright and Alf Linney's interactive, computer-generated facial modelling installation. This pushed the limits of technology beyond breaking point, and as such wasn't functioning during my visit. But is this necessarily a bad thing? If your aim is to push limits, the failures can only be as interesting as the successes.

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