Science is fiction: An animal obsession

Science is fiction. This part of the title is taken from a book* that examines the work of Jean Painlevé, a director of science documentaries who, amongst his other accomplishments, was the first to film the male sea horse in the act of giving birth.

The publication you are holding is meant to act as a book-cum-album that captures the experience of a project-experiment carried out in the Donostia-San Sebastian Aquarium, and which I’ve been working on for two years. It began with the film of the same name – also included here – built from interviews held with a disparate group of people (children, old people . . .) in two places: Bilbao and New York. They were handed a sea horse and asked to talk about it. In the film these sequences are combined with drawings and animations of sea horses.

Through this animal and the anecdote of its reproductive process, the work took shape as an audiovisual piece, along with drawings, sculptures, fetishes and books. Some of the material was displayed in showcases, in line with the idea of pedagogical organisation that lay behind the old cabinets of wonders. All these artefacts attempt to answer the need of human beings to find meanings and a connection with nature, as well as the permanent necessity to classify our knowledge.

This whole emotional scenario – proceeding from contemplation and study of this animal – is exhibited in an aquarium, a suitable place indeed and one that is conceptually coherent with the proposal.

The expression of a project from the scientific field and its connection with artistic practice made it possible to interconnect, either metaphorically or through relation, areas such as anthropology, gender, education, popular science and many other fields. From the outset one was drawn by the idea of expanding, via this peculiar and striking creature, a choral ensemble that would be understood as an emotional birth or delivery.

The formats employed seek to foster a dialogue and provide an interesting contextualisation for the project. In short, it seems fitting to use an animal, the sea horse, as an icon for furnishing access to different areas of knowledge, and that these should be staged inside the aquarium space; furthermore, this occurs following a novel exhibition premise and not a classical temporary exhibition format, for the work is incorporated within various museum showcases as well as in aquariums and other spaces. So the project becomes an open dialogue more subtle than a mere chain of objects shown in a single space.

WHY THE SEA HORSE?

The sea horse was chosen for a number of reasons, the foremost of which was its strange sexual role. In this species it is the male who gives birth. The animal also represents the mystery of unknown waters. Although they appear to be delicate creatures, contradictory forces are at work in them. While belonging to an imaginary linked to childhood, they have an extruded body structure, odd in its form and its functions. These forces eventually contradict any initial impression of tenderness.

The sea horse is the argument, a guiding thread to create an interactive mechanism which enables us to establish a dialogue, an experience, with the works that we encounter as we wander the Aquarium route.

The context offered by the San Sebastian Aquarium allows the artist to enrich her production through the dialectics and games that are set in play as the space is explored. It is an explosion of content, inspiration, thoughts, knowledge and feelings that come together during the course of the visit.

Science is fiction: an animal obsession takes in questions of great diversity, including the dichotomy between art and science. The areas find expression through a process of information and explanation and through reflection on the contents. Contents that germinate – in my mind and in the minds of others.

How is the world explained from the perspective of science and from that of art? How do we look at these objects if, in spite of being art, they appear within a scientific context? And how do they look at us? How do words work when they combine with images? What would the world be like if men gave birth? We are venturing into the borderland zones between fiction and the real.

Many of these themes have been implicit since their origins in the concept of ‘sea’, which takes in the unexplainable, the obscure, fears, and is a metaphor from the depths of our mind. It is no surprise that the sea aroused such great interest among the surrealists.

It is an awesome and new experience to walk a glass corridor where you see fish from below, as if they were birds. It is unreal and, within our lives, against nature. But it captures our amazement. And a state of amazement is a good starting point for understanding this work.