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Science Meets Art at List Center

Michael Joo Exhibit Explores Religion, Identity, and the Metaphysical

By Lauren Nowierski

Michael Joo

List Visual Arts Center

Oct. 17 - Jan. 4

The correlation between science and art is generally a strong one. Artists often utilize scientific influences in their work, and the world of science in general can be viewed as art. The most well-known example of this is Leonardo da Vinci, who carefully studied anatomy and physiology in order to create the most lifelike human forms possible in his paintings. The Michael Joo exhibit at the List Visual Arts Center is another fine example of the strong association between science and art.

Michael Joo was born and raised in Ithaca, N.Y. in the late 1960s. He attended Wesleyan University, where he received his Bachelor’s degree in biology. After working in the field for a few years, he attended Washington University to obtain his Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in sculpture and later attended Yale for his Master’s. Since then, he has amassed fifteen solo exhibitions in various galleries all over the United States and the world.

Joo’s exhibit at the List Visual Arts Center at MIT opened on Oct. 17 and runs through Jan 4. On display are some of Joo’s finest sculptures depicting the bridge between his science background, his Korean-American heritage, his gender, and art. All of his works examine some sort of material, emotional, or spiritual link between any of the above four elements and exploit them in a creative and interesting way.

Upon entering the exhibit, you encounter a large aluminum pie chart made of nine equally spaced wedges. Each wedge names either a famous person or Michael Joo and carries the number 29.38. The number represents the degree of the angle formed by the gap between the upper and lower lid. This sculpture is meant to represent the link between Joo and the famous individuals in the chart, and questions if the link is a direct result of the number 29.38 in some shape or form. Joo suggests yes, but the viewer is forced to examine why. Most of Joo’s works pose similar questions to this, while trying to establish the link between science and art.

In a similar sculpture, Michael Joo preserves three of his own urine samples in three beakers. Above each pyrex glass he names a famous person from history, Genghis Khan for example, or himself. The viewer is forced to examine the urine samples in order to find out if the urine samples are all different, and indeed from the supposed individual, or if, in fact, they are all the same, from Michael Joo. Upon examining this connection, one realizes that we can break down every individual, “great” or “not great,” into a mere scientific presence that we all share, the act of excretion. Harsh, but interesting to think about.

Many of Joo’s sculptures combine different forms of media to best exemplify the point he is trying to make. In “Trampoline,” he constructed a very tall bungee-type structure that appears to be functional, although this is never determined. On the top and bottom of the structure, Joo has affixed a videotape of himself bouncing up and down on a trampoline, and the camera angle suggests that he keeps moving through the lens of the camera. The contrast between the structure and the video element keeps the notion of motion, despite the fact that the sculpture is still the entire time.

Joo’s video elements are creative works as well. In his three-part looped video, “The Salt Transfer Cycle,” Joo examines the cyclic aspects of life. In part one of the video, he is shown “swimming” through a room filled with MSG. Next, he is shown crawling through the salt, and then walking and running through the salt, filmed in the salt plains of Utah. The video plays on loop to suggest that the cycle has no true beginning or end. This video is based on a Korean tradition of eating ground-up elk horns in order to increase sexual potency. The salt that Joo is shown swimming, crawling, walking, and running through is supposed ground-up elk horns.

Perhaps his most noted work, “Circannual Rhythm,” is another three-part DVD video projection, but this one is a bit more complex. The 37-minute video shows Joo walking down a barren road. The first segment is simply Joo walking down the road amid a vast mountainous landscape. It is supposed to depict a long journey, two weeks in length, in which the man in the video slowly delves deeper and deeper into his own psychologically unknown.

In the second part of the video, a local Inuit village is shown to be excavating a sod village. One of the actors suddenly begins having many seizures. The character changes form many times before finally being re-transformed back into a human.

The final phase of the video is set around a taxidermy caribou carcass. Video surveillance cameras are set around the carcass -- as well as inside. The videos help to show its defiance of natural decay. Both the first and last parts of the video symbolize decay in one form or another, and the middle is another cyclic video like “Salt Transfer Cycle.” The man undergoing the cyclic transformation heads to the unknown and back, but at the beginning and end, is the same person he always was. This video poses questions on many levels, and all the while has many scientific references and psychological references throughout.

Joo’s sculptures and videos are different from anything you will find in the Museum of Fine Arts or the Met and is interesting to view, both as an aspiring scientist and as a human.

Tomorrow, at noon, the Michael Joo exhibit’s curator, Jane Farver, will be giving a public talk at the List Visual Arts Center.