University City Science Center’s Esther Klein Gallery boasts gleaming white walls and an abundance of natural light streaming in from the glass-paned entrance. Less than 10 strides separate the center of the exhibit area from the bright bustle of uCity Square and Market Street. Yet within a few minutes of entering the wide, open space, a hush falls that drops a veil between the viewers and the outside world—an apt transformation for Laura Splan’s Conformations series, now on view.
Conformations is the culmination of a three-month BioArt residency at the Science Center, where Splan worked alongside scientists who were researching molecular biology and extracting antibodies from immunized chickens, for use in developing human drugs. At first glance, the exhibit feels sterile, dominated by large-scale photos of lab equipment in crayon colors, bright blues and yellows better suited to categorization than aesthetic. But Splan’s exhibit is a love letter to the scientific process as well as a sensory celebration of change.
No “eureka” here
Conformations is not sensationalistic. Splan portrays the scientific process in all of its slowness and setbacks. There’s no “Eureka!” moment, just the steady stabbing of a haystack looking for a cellular needle. The sounds and tactile experiences evoke a sanctity of space, creating an ambiance that’s almost reverent in its effect.
One of the major installations of the exhibit consists of a pair of headphones dangling from the ceiling over an alpaca wool rug, with instructions inviting viewers to slip off their shoes, sit down, and listen. Once I pushed past the self-consciousness of being shoeless in the lobby of a building filled with the city’s brightest scientific minds, the headphones played a loop of laboratory sounds, the clinking, the grinding, the muffled voices of coworkers joking with each other over a series of repetitive tasks, a soothing rhythm that almost became a lullaby.
Nothing is finished
The centerpiece of the exhibit uses even more alpaca wool, netted over a small doorway like a permeable membrane, through which the viewer slips to sit in a small, dark room on a bundle of hay, watching a projection of abstract lines and dots on the opposite screen, curving and twisting into new and fascinating shapes, while a makeshift wind chime of alpaca wool and brass keys tinkles softly in the background. I meditated there for almost twenty minutes, lost in a comforting haze of contemplating infinite change and universal connectivity. Scientists are just artists in a different medium, pushing themselves every day to find a better, more beautiful truth.
A small book is on display with the more eye-catching photos, a collection of Splan’s photos and quotations pertinent to the nature of change and the incremental process of creating it. My favorite was by Rene Descartes: “The nature of physical things is much more easily conceived when they are beheld coming gradually into existence, than when they are only considered as produced at once in a finished and perfect state.” There are no finished projects, only a steady march of evolution.
What, When, Where
Conformations. By Laura Splan. Through November 23, 2019 at Esther Klein Gallery, 3600 Market Street, Philadelphia. (215) 966-6188 or sciencecenter.org/discover/ekg.
The Esther Klein Gallery is a wheelchair-accessible venue.