Above: One of Nell Tenhaaf’s works, The solitary begets herself, keeping all eight cells (1993), on view in her latest exhibition
Nell Tenhaaf, pioneering visual arts professor in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, loves the challenge of marrying art with science. Her latest show, Fit/Unfit: A Survey Exhibition, continues in her avant-garde tradition. It opened to enthusiastic reception at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP) in Ottawa on Jan. 24 and runs to Sunday, April 25. The exhibition will travel to three more venues.
“I make the kind of art that generates discourse,” Tenhaaf said. “This exhibit gives me a chance to articulate themes that have run through my work for many years, for example, exploring the ways that the natural and artificial merge. Some of the works show a reconciliation of those terms, while others read more as an alert about technology’s impact on biology.”
Martha Hanna, director of the CMCP, said in a news release, “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to present Tenhaaf’s creative and unique works. The exhibition showcases the ideas and rich material practice of this important Canadian multimedia artist.”
Fit/Unfit covers more than 15 years of Tenhaaf’s practice in electronic media. A number of works created between 1989 and the mid-1990s were aimed at deconstructing the dominance in mainstream biological and biotechnology discourse of DNA as the “master molecule”. For example, explained the news release, The solitary begets herself, keeping all eight cells (1993) is a photographic image of the artist lying prone in a long thin light box. This work celebrates not just the generative power of creativity as a kind of reproductive capacity, but also questions the idea of perfecting our species through genetic manipulation. You Could Be Me (UCBM), (1999) takes up this idea ironically, in the form of an interactive installation that works as a “fitness test” for the viewer.
“Tenhaaf’s survey exhibition reinforces the fact that it is impossible to separate culture and science,” said Linda Jansma, curator of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, which organized the exhibition in collaboration with the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery of Concordia University, Montreal, the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound, Ont., and the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ont.
“Although deeply theoretical, Tenhaaf’s work can be approached on various levels, an accessibility of which the artist is particularly appreciative. If one of the roles of the artist is to assist us in viewing life differently, then Tenhaaf’s ongoing engagement with science, culture and art is a persuasive example,” Jansma added.
Nell Tenhaaf’s work points to the artistic potential to be found in scientific findings, explained the news release. But the tone of her exploration is not just cool and rational; it inserts subjectivity into scientific ideas and images rather than mimicking their objective stance. Experiencing the work, viewers become active participants in ever-expanding fields of human knowledge that are tinged with old beliefs, fatalistic narratives, and the vulnerability of organic life.
More about Nell Tenhaaf
Tenhaaf is an electronic media artist and writer with extensive publication, lecture and exhibition credits across Canada, the United States and Europe. Her writings and installations focus on the new media and the integration of these forms of artmaking into the current social and cultural context. Prior to her appointment at York in 1997, Tenhaaf taught at Concordia University in Montreal, University of Ottawa, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is represented in Toronto by Paul Petro Contemporary Art.
For further information about Tenhaaf, read the Winter 2000 edition of York’s Focus on Research newsletter.
Below: Nell Tenhaaf, lower right, in front of her interactive video installation, You Could Be Me (UCBM), which first opened in Toronto and Stockholm in 1999