Synthia's Closet / Ione Thorkelsson
Image: Synthia's Closet, sph-07. cast glass, feather shafts, LED light
About six years ago a simple news item came over the radio in my studio: new life had been produced from scratch in a chemistry lab by a group of bioscientists led by Craig Venter. (See notes 1 and 2 below.) This seemed to me a momentous event and I expected to find it widely discussed in public forums. I also expected that when I mentioned it to friends and associates there would be an immediate and visceral response (similar to mine). But neither of these things seemed to be happening, to my dismay. I remember wondering: Where was the debate? Where was the tell-tale involuntary shudder?
Arriving as it did on top of current speculation regarding 'the singularity' (that much-anticipated threshold when machines begin to out-think their makers), and within an overall atmosphere of increasing unease regarding man's control of his own evolution, this stark announcement prompted me, being a visual artist, to begin thinking about the creation of a large, enveloping installation. The question I needed answered was: why did I feel such unease about this particular announcement, the announcement that someone had finally come up with a combination of chemicals that was capable of reproducing itself and that the computer-generated code that led to the chemical mix had been inserted into a living cell?
After some thought, I came to the conclusion that what I was looking for was reassurance, not because of the fear of future ramifications of this technique (although that, indeed, filled me with apprehension) or because it was yet another reminder that human technological over-reach (as dark as it is dazzling) is indeed relentless, but because my innate understanding of what was fundamental and unchanging in the natural world had somehow been shaken.
The theme of Synthia’s Closet, concerning the ambiguities and cultural disquietude surrounding current trends in bioengineering and genetic manipulation, seems as timely and urgent as ever. As this project itself comes to life in my studio, stories about the possible ‘de-extinction’ of lost species, CRISPR technology, crowd-funded DIY bio-hacking, and cerebral organoids come over the radio daily.
The creation of these glass forms has drawn on a long repertoire of casting techniques, many unused for several years, and has led me back, as well, to the blowpipe and to my early experience with free-blown techniques. Further information on the inter-relationship of my blown and my cast work may be found on my website.
The internal landscapes themselves have been constructed from diverse materials. The protected interiors of the glass spheres have given me the opportunity to use delicate and transitory natural elements such as bones, feathers and other found organic objects and fine animal structures. At the other end of the spectrum, I have had to conduct extensive research into fibre optics and LED technology to be able to create the kind of small-scale, flexible, ‘off-the-grid’ lighting required to execute this project. I continually scour dollar stores for electronic bric-a-brac. These items are cannibalized for their inexpensive, disposable mico-electronic switches, LEDs, resistors, and batteries which I am able to combine with found organic elements to make a rich conceptual and visual stew, as fertile as anything found in Venter’s petri dishes.
Notes1. "Craig Venter creates synthetic life form", Ian Sample, The Guardian, May 20, 2010 [http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/may/20/craig-venter-synthetic-life-form] 2. See also ‘Synthia’ Venter’s Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/synthia.venter.9].
About Ione Thorkelsson
Virtually self-taught in the technically unforgiving medium of blown glass, Ione set up her first studio in 1973 and was heavily influenced by the ethos of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century. Consequently, Ione’s career almost perfectly coincides with the history of the Canadian Studio Glass Movement and is a textbook local example of the great post-war craft revival movement in North America.
However, by 1993 she had began exploring the expressive possibilities of various casting techniques and by 2005 had abandoned blown work altogether. In the process, what had begun as an early uncomplicated discovery and ecstatic exploration of the materiality of blown glass unexpectedly became a very compelling, and at times startling, personal artistic vision, full of surprise and improbable eloquence. In this sense she falls almost perfectly across the unstable fault-line between Art and craft and a close study of her career suggests an interesting alternative to theory-driven art practise.
Her numerous solo shows include: The Unwilling Bestiary (The Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1998); Chimerae: fieldnotes for a reconstructed future (Craftspace, Winnipeg, 2001); Fragments and 2 partial reconstructions: everything we know about the Tropocene (Waterloo, 2004); Ossuary 501 (Toronto, 2006); Ossuary (remounted, Ottawa, 2007); Narratives (Thunder Bay, 2007); Corrections (Ottawa, 2010), Synthia’s Closet (Ottawa, 2015), Reassembly and Synthia’s Closet (concurrent, Brandon, 2016), A Natural History of Utopias (Waterloo, 2016). Commissions include the ‘Blizzard’ award for the Manitoba Motion Picture Association and the ‘Wave’ for the Gimli Film Festival. In 2007 she was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and in 2010 she received the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. Public installations include the James Armstrong Richardson International Airport in Winnipeg and the Canadian Embassy in Hong Kong.
This exhibition, Synthia’s Closet, continues the artist's investigation of the unintended consequences of human intervention in the natural world, in this case biohacking and genetic manipulation.