BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

John Isaacs

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 01 JAN 98

John Isaacs' 'The Matrix of Amnesia' is the first show in the newly refurbished gallery at the Imperial College of science, technology and medicine. Isaacs shows three works, one of which is a large free-standing enclosure. The outside reveals the method of its construction, but within, using the resources of the college, the artist has made a convincing generic laboratory of biomedicine. The door is locked and our view is restricted to its small window, through which we may study the tableau inside. This includes a life-size wax figure of a naked person, whose category of viscid corpulence is that of a fatter-than-fat, circus fat lady.

This huge, hairless pink blob lies on the floor of the lab, and is either unconscious, or more probably, dead. The restricted view imposed by Isaacs prevents us from seeing any part of the head of this collapsed person, who appears, in some sinister way, to have been filleted of his or her bones and then partially liposucted. Consequently, the figure is in a condition of lardy oozement all over the floor. The blob appears to be the victim of some kind of predatory biological process, which has partially consumed its victim in such a way that its skin surface is not visibly punctured.

The other works are photo pieces that establish a parasitological tone. One image is of the head of a tapeworm-like creature, which is, in fact, a fish with a mouth designed for long term gripping and suction. This fish apparently attaches itself on a more or less permanent basis to sharks. The other image is of the artist's head, whose features are obliterated by a sort of fungal growth in the shape of a Rorschach test - psychiatry's version of astrology. This fungal growth, in an ironic reversal of the deliberate open endedness of the original tests, intentionally corresponds with the expected features of a face.

The laboratory, within which the spreading and dissolving person lies, contains sundry biomedical paraphernalia, which continues its business independently. There is a peristaltic pump, a computer generated graph and two video monitors showing a time-lapse loop of a flower opening and closing. A rhythmic noise is generated from within the lab, resembling the sound of a huge institutional boilerhouse - in fact very like the Imperial's boilerhouse itself. The tableau's quality, achieved through the use of overly theatrical music as in a film or TV drama, is of a frozen moment, like the last shot in a cliffhanger before the credits roll and we become hooked on the next episode.

Isaacs has taken his combative stance of scientific disrespect into the very heartlands of medical imperialism, and he is wise to employ Hollywood devices, even if they may be overfamiliar. As was seen in the unfortunate failures of Helen Chadwick's last works on medical science, biomedicine and medical ethics are usually, incomparably more interesting or spectacularly horrible than the decorative tinkering of most artists on the subject. The industrialised sophistication of contemporary medicine and its imperious professional privileges can reduce the status of the artist to that of a contemporary war artist: a total anachronistic irrelevance, who is valued largely out of a sense of tradition. Isaacs' ass-kicking, Rambo-meets-Ivan-Illich style therefore seems relievedly positive and encouraging, assuming we can suspend disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is of course a forte of Hollywood, whose techniques Isaacs uses well.

Overall, the works operate more on the visceral level of the senses, than on that of an analytical, properly scientific mind - thank goodness. Although there lurks the naff outline of a predictable cautionary story of the mad scientific experiment gone wrong, the comfortable satisfaction of any real resolution to the question of why our fatty protagonist is on the floor is denied us. More particularly, while there are many real and fictitious precedents for people dying in laboratories - even very fat ones presumably - there are fewer for people being rawly naked. In this sense, both the mystery and repellent fascination of what has happened to the huge volume of human flesh on the floor are secondary to why the person is naked.

The sad vulnerability of human nakedness introduces, just, some authorised compassion where there would otherwise be just a wanky, gormless, voyeurism like that of a circus peep show, or a ghoulish, science-horror fiction. Because of this empathic arousal, there is the feeling that something really terrible and unjust has happened, in a more universal sense. The humanness of the poor creature, and our fear of the consumed diminishment suffered by its fat flesh, allows the viewer to transcend the buffoon- and Bunter-ish qualities present in the work. In the guerrilla conscience of Isaacs' tableau, it seems intended that we may find ourselves ascribing to the work the greater meaning of tragedy.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.