Foreign Bodies, Common Ground is not an exhibition about medical research but rather takes the work carried out by research centres founded by the Wellcome Trust as inspiration. Each of the six artists undertook a residency at a centre in either Kenya, Malawa, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam or the UK, and were invited to produce work that responded to its research. The end results were diverse mainly due to the different challenges of these countries with their distinct climates, cultures and economies; however the assorted media the artists use – painting, photography, sculpture, film and performance – also contributed to this exhibition's unique qualities.
As to be expected, some art pieces are more successful than others. Katie Paterson's stunning Fossil Necklace – a long necklace consisting of 170 beads carved from individual fossils – is a physical, wearable manifestation of the Earth's biological evolution. The first beads are billions of years old and reference the beginnings of single-celled organisms, with each subsequent bead representing a major evolutionary event. A handy diagram on the exterior wall details the fossil of each bead and what evolutionary period it is from. The installation of the necklace serves to increase its exceptionality, with visitors offered miniature magnifying glasses to get up close with the spotlighted fossils. Out of the six exhibits, this piece is perhaps the most intriguing and attractive, but also the least clearly relevant to the exhibition brief. Paterson's residency took place at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, which has a focus on genomics research. Paterson became particularly interested in genomic archaeology and human evolutionary history, with this record of fossils building a picture of the Earth's biological history. While the end result is marvellous, on first glance it is difficult to see how it relates to medical research. Fortunately, each exhibit is accompanied by a 'behind the scenes' video which reveals the process of the artists as well as their relationship to the research centre. It serves to contextualise these artworks in the Wellcome Trust environment and prevents it from becoming a primarily art-focused exhibition.
Lêna Bùi's investigations into zoonosis were similarly of high quality. Zoonosis explores the transfer of disease from animals to humans, which is particularly pertinent to Vietnam where the first outbreak of bird flu was recorded. Bùi visited rural farming areas and produced several pieces – a well-crafted, poignant film entitled Where birds dance their last on bird feather harvesters; polished large-scale photographs of artificial meat shaped into animals; and delicate Indian ink drawings of microscopic bacteria, the latter of which were not on display. These artworks were perhaps the most chilling in their relationship to contemporary global issues that have potentially catastrophic consequences on how our food consumption operates. They are perhaps the best example of art being used for a educational purpose by revealing the ease with which disease can spread, and providing a human face for a traditionally anonymous problem. If there was one exhibit in this show that validates the need for medical research, this is it.
The other four exhibits are similarly unique to the location of the research, such as Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki's participative installation addressing the Kenyan community's hopes and fears of scientific research, while Elson Kambalu's sculptures and murals reveal the power of local fables in medicine in Malawi. While some of the resulting artworks are not especially engaging as artworks in themselves, they still manage to present an insight into a culture's perspective of medicine and medical research.
Foreign Bodies, Common Ground is a well-formed exhibition that should maintain the attention of artistically and scientifically minded visitors and provoke conversation on how we view scientific developments. A recommended outing if you're on the look-out for something a bit different.