"EmBodied" is SciArt Center's latest virtual exhibition. Exploring what the body can reveal about the inner self, curator Marnie Benney spoke with participating artist Gunes-Helene Isitan:
MB: In your view, does one's physicality reflect the soul, mind, or inner self? If so, how?
GHI: I believe physicality and the inner self can only exist together, as a whole; as such they need not reflect each other because they are each other. In my art practice, the invisible self is thus not linked to the inner self, but rather to our microbiota, that non-human part that contributes to make each of us the individuals that we are.
MB: How have science and technology better informed us in our understanding of who and what we are?
GHI: From my understanding, science posits hypothesis about who and what we are, and confronts them with the current knowledge of the workings of our world; each step, each answer, is just a transient one. And to me, that is what makes science so important: there often is not one definitive answer, just a general consensus waiting to be challenged by new scientific facts.
For example, for the longest time, we thought that skin was the human's frontier; we believed that we were isolated in it…until we found out that some microorganisms actually lived within us. More recently, we learned that some of those microorganisms not only live within us, but that they co-evolved with us, making us their only known home. And now, we have opened the door to a whole different understanding, one where those microorganisms, our microbiota, are a part of who we are; they influence our whole being and are part of what makes us ourselves.
Since humanity is always in a process of becoming, only a field willing to be challenged, willing to embrace continuous change, can help us better understand who and what we are. To me, science is that field.
MB: What do you aim to communicate to your audience through your art?
GHI: Well, mainly that "humanity's boundaries do not end at the doors of the human species", as said by Philippe Descola. Indeed, our embodiment makes us part of a system where each interaction modifies the system itself, in a causal loop: human and non-human existences are thus constitutively engendered. This means that "to be" is a process that cannot happen in solitary confinement, as it does not come from the inside, from a theorized original matrix of the self, but rather from the meeting and merging: a human being is a multispecies continuum, not a container.
MB: What has been your greatest discovery through creating this type of work?
GHI: It would be the understanding that reality is composed of worlds connected to other worlds; human perspective just happens to be one of them.
Indeed, humanism had us believe that we, humans, were exceptional. Over time, we became so imbued with ourselves that we hierarchized life according to our own perceived worth of it (and dismissed the non-living altogether). In the end, we placed ourselves at the top.
But the thing is, measuring any non-human's worth according to their ability to achieve what humans believe to be intelligence, resourcefulness or even language, is a lapse in reasoning. Undeniably, different species need a different set of skills. As such, a species' worth cannot be judged by another one's scale: a human would not rate very high in achieving what a plant needs to achieve in order to survive as a plant.
Nowadays, though, unilateral anthropocentrism begins to be questioned. Our pyramidal "tree of life" schematic has been modified, and looks more like Darwin's first (known) draft of it, in 1837. It takes the shape of a circle, where the center is the origin of all life and the branches grow outwards, creating only a temporal hierarchy. In this new visualization, humans are nothing but a dot on a circle; our perspective is just one of the many that exists.
See Embodied on SciArt Center's website: http://www.sciartcenter.org/embodied.html
Buy Isitan's work here: www.sciartcenter.org/gunes-helene-isitan.html
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