An essay on Eileen Reynoldsʼ exhibition Big Bio, on show at The Substation Gallery 4 – 20 March 2011.
Written by Cyril Wong
While chatting with Eileen Reynolds in a quiet café, we discovered our common ground. It was a Sunday and both of us were ensconced beside a deserted business district on Shenton Way, a somewhat fitting milieu surrounding our discussion about the link between callous industry and the mystery of creation —an unsettling relationship presented in her installation, Big Bio. In a country that values the economic and the technological over the less tangible rewards of introspection and philosophical reflection, the artist and I spoke about what it meant to create.
A shared starting point was, to our surprise, religion. Both of us, lapsed Catholics, confessed that Christian ideology and imagery dominated much of our upbringing. For Eileen, iconic representations of the Madonna and Child — made popular in Roman mosaics and paintings since the fifth century and which remain popular today —have haunted her imagination. Such images have prefigured the ways in which she still thinks about motherhood —not that she is eager to have children herself —and art became a way through which she might unsentimentally explore her professed interest in the “changing dynamics of maternity and reproductive technologies”; how even a virgin can become pregnant now and what this means for the symbolic status of the Virgin Mary and Child in our time.
Hence in Big Bio, the whole idea of creation is tied to the figure of the mother. God is no longer ideologically masculinised, but an omnipresent female bound by a singular purpose —producing babies. In the conceptualisation of the Virgin-mother, no male presence is even necessary in the procedure of a child’s conception; the Woman-creator becomes autonomously empowered in a way that would make many fanatical feminists nod in approval.
But nature-as-mother is not necessarily benevolent. As we looked together through Eileenʼs images and video-clips for her installation, such as the stopanimation sequences of technicolour clay morphing abstractedly into vaginal openings, cell-divisions, infant-crownings and embryonic movements, and the startling vision of a female hand shaping a foetus with a knife, a Ridley Scott movie entered my mind. Alien featured Sigourney Weaver wielding guns against hideously sleek and jet-black extraterrestrial monsters. What made the movie unnerving was the assumption that nature, or Mother-nature, as most of us complacently call “her”, would do anything to reproduce and perpetuate itself; aliens would burst from the chests of live human-subjects “impregnated” against their will.
Eileenʼs images are not about gore and violence, yet a sublimated sense of cruelty and amorality does present itself through her digitalised imagery. The persona of the Mother-creator is not exactly warm and maternal, instead she is coldly experimental, even tentatively sadistic in her shaping and re-shaping of new life. In one stop-motion clip, the “biotechnological Madonna” (termed by the artist herself) is dressed in a silver spacesuit with Medusa-esque tentacles meandering out from behind her as she sputters down a corridor, presumably in the direction of her laboratory where she will manufacture her offspring. The sight is both comical and nightmarish; Mother-nature becomes a machinistic persona who is neither benign nor outrightly malevolent, sustained only by that single-minded purpose to fill the universe with her children. There is no whimsical questioning here about why she does this, only how she will do so and how soon. Paranoia is inherent: the universal mother is fearful that life as she knows it might end if she stops creating. Nature is always and already in a state of panic. And yet, paradoxically, there is still some tenderness, some artistic consideration about what her life-forms should look like. Hence, the knife, the rigorous industry, the analogous fashioning of clay; all considerations to get her creations right in an evolutionary sense and for the sake of survival.
The artistʼs private fascination with the foetus-form is everywhere we look. On the gallery walls, elemental material is moulded into recognisable form. The unknowability of the creatorʼs raison d’être is both a source of fascination and existential frustration for the artist. We encounter that unknowability when we wonder why some babies are born with deformities while others are not, why some live longer than others, or when we dare to ask whether the intention of life is to produce more life. No answer by any religious institution will ever be sufficient for intelligent minds. Yet artists continue to be driven by that curiosity which can seem, by turns, morbid, obsessive, indignant, and even, despairing.
And does love play a part in all this? Does love even belong to the structure of our universe? Or is love a lie we use to stitch an existential void while explaining what is essentially irrational? God the compassionate Madonna or God the faceless, mindless, biotechnological womb? Which metaphysical image would you choose? The trope of the scientist or artist is also subverted here because the Mother-Frankenstein exhibits no romantic agenda beyond making and perfecting her product. Frame by frame we watch as surfaces divide and realign again, only to be wiped clean from a blindingly white canvas. On the gallery floor, as if on the floor of an absent creatorʼs playground, fibre-glass foetuses roll on wheels, directed by remote control; sometimes the uniformly designed babies do what the control dictates, sometimes they rebel. Under our eyes, they could be said to be undergoing test-runs, doing what we make them do or not do. And what about babies who fail to live up to our expectations? Thoughts about abortion and the ethical dilemmas of cloning surge to mind. One implication is obvious: if Mother-nature is morally indifferent, then we might not be so different in our occasional willingness to abort life in the womb, or to control nature through experimentations with genetic DNA. In “playing God” ourselves, we might merely be complicit with that larger life-force which has no compunction in living only to survive.
Whatever justifications we tell ourselves about why cloning is necessary or why abortion is acceptable, the truth of the matter is that there is no truth in the matter about why we are here, what is absolutely wrong or right, or why we continue to dominate this planet as a stubborn species. Any certainty we enfold ourselves in might just be founded on faith —mostly blind at that —and little else.
Cyril Wong is the Singapore Literature Prize-winning author of eight poetry-collections and a book of strange tales.