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Issue 211

Jenna Sutela Explores the Language of Microorganisms

In her first institutional exhibition at Kunsthall Trondheim, the artist combines scientific research with fictional elements to create puzzling audio-visual narratives

BY Zofia Cielatkowska in EU Reviews , Reviews | 26 MAR 20

In an interview with The Paris Review in 1981, the Colombian novelist and journalist Gabriel García Márquez claimed that one false fact in a newspaper article can prejudice the entire piece, whereas in fiction one single fact legitimates the whole story. García Márquez concludes: ‘A novelist can do everything he wants as long as he makes people believe in it.’ Can the same dichotomy be applied to art and science? Berlin-based artist Jenna Sutela’s first institutional exhibition at Kunsthall Trondheim indicates that perhaps it could be. ‘NO NO NSE NSE’ combines scientific research with fictional elements to create puzzling audio-visual narratives. 

Installed on both levels of the exhibition space, the show centres around the sculptures ‘I Magma’ (2019), a series of heads atop white square pillars that resemble museum displays of classical busts. However, these sculptures don’t depict the faces of dead philosophers or artists; rather, they are blown-glass portraits of Sutela. Each is filled with different coloured goo-bubbles that move in unpredictable trajectories registered by small cameras. Eight monochromatic photograms show the same head in profile. The titles of the photograms – such as No central creatures are fixed, I is a derivate and They saw the ear-world – call to mind randomly generated haikus.

Jenna Sutela, 'NO NO NSE NSE', 2020, installation view at Kunsthall Trondheim, Norway. Photograph: Aage A. Mikalsen / Kunsthall Trondheim

The exploration of language recurs in many of Sutela’s works. However, the artist isn’t as interested in human communication systems as those of microorganisms, bacteria, machines and Martians. In the video Nam-Gut (the microbial breakdown of language) (2017), violet and yellow bacteria move randomly between floating letters on a microscope. The yeast bacteria disintegrate and reconnect, creating new phonemes according to an algorithm that Sutela applied. Elsewhere, the audio-visual work, nimiia cétiï (2018) is based on machine-learning registers. Inspired by the 19th-century Swiss medium Hélène Smith, known for her automatic writing, Sutela recorded excerpts of Smith’s alleged communication with Martians and paired them with images of digitally created mountain landscapes and Bacillus subtilis bacteria under a microscope. According to a 2006 study at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the latter could survive on Mars.

While some of Sutela’s works might be grounded in real technological developments and scientific research, she also includes surrealistic components – like Smith’s communication with Martians. Unlike García Márquez’s dichotomy, Sutela doesn’t distinguish in her practice between fantasy and fact, making it hard to grasp what she’s aiming for. While Sutela is often described as an artist who is critical of technology, she has also created a work for an app which requires the most recent smartphones in order to be fully experienced (I Magma App, 2019). Perhaps this was intended as a capitalist critique but I find it hard to read it like that.

Jenna Sutela, I Magma App, 2019, mobile app

In other works, Sutela shows us that even things which might seem revolting can be beautiful: Minakata Mandala (2017) and From Hierarchy to Holarchy (2015), two Plexiglas plates hanging on strings and lit like sacred objects, feature agar, oats and the single-celled slime Physarum polycephalum. By incorporating an ancient organism like slime mould, Sutela draws attention to the advanced intelligence of some of the smallest species, showing that our familiar knowledge systems might have to be reconsidered. Perhaps that’s the way art and science can work together: by questioning our present.

Main image: Jenna Sutela, Gut-Machine Poetry, 2017. Photograph: Mikko Gaestel

Thumbnail: Jenna Sutela, I Magma (detail), 2019, blown glass, goo, electronics. Co-commissioned by SerpentineGalleries and Moderna Museet, 2019. Photograph: Aage A. Mikalsen / Kunsthall Trondheim

Zofia Cielatkowska is a writer and critic based in Oslo, Norway.