[The second, and final, piece commissioned for Arsenal, an internet project for Mercer Union, Toronto in 1996. As of this writing, the texts are still on-line here.]

 

Cheryl Sourkes: Genes and Genesis/Inexact Shadows

 

Cheryl Sourkes new installation, Genes and Genesis/Inexact Shadows, draws its images and texts from our culture's most persuasive and dominant narratives concerning the origins of human life: the science of genetics and the Christian myth of our creation as outlined in the Book of Genesis.

At about eye-level there is a row of twenty-eight photographs that combine Sourkes' texts — which range from aphorisms and simple facts to some exquisitely rendered prose poems — with images appropriated from various sources. The images include contemporary and historic scientific diagrams, various pictorial renditions of the Eden myth, as well as other related images. Everything is in black and white, presented very starkly, like pages from a book or instructional panels from a museum display.

Higher up on the wall, just under the ceiling is a frieze of the DNA ladder (the double helix unwound to form a continuous ribbon). The DNA ladder consists of different pairings of the four base pairs A T G C — if you remember your high school biology, cytosine pairs with guanine, adenine with thymine. To these four bases Sourkes has added the words ADAM and EVE paired both hetero- and homosexually. The gesture is something of a groaner, uncharacteristically clumsy and without depth.

The heart of the installation, for me, is the photographic panels. And, as is usually the case, I find the text dominates the images. In Genes and Genesis, I think it's mainly because the images, many of which are familiar, seem utterly unauthored — merely chosen from the vast image bank of Western culture. While they may be carefully chosen and integral to the project, they seem just illustrative of the more compelling texts. (When I say this I am not being in the least critical, just descriptive. I do not mean to say that I find the dynamic Sourkes has established between her images and texts problematic or flawed. Rather, I am — as usual — interested in exploring the relationship between text and image.)

Although the texts are also largely appropriated, or based on previous texts, they are more decisively authored. No critique — no irony — is possible without some indication of authorship. While a sense of irony might be hard to pinpoint, Sourkes critique is both sharp and resonant. This is political work that can be contemplated. More specifically, it's about the politics of language:

Confidence in the transparency and neutrality of scientific language is certainly useful in enabling scientists to get on with their job; it is also wondrously effective in supporting their special claims to truth. It encourages the view that their own language, because neutral, is absolute, and in so doing, helps secure their disciplinary borders against criticism. Language, assumed to be transparent, becomes impervious. It falls to others, then, less enclosed by the demands of science's own self-understanding, to disclose the “thickness” of scientific language... Under careful scrutiny, the hypothesized contrast between ordinary and scientific language gives way to a recognition of disconcerting similarity. Even the most purely technical discourses turn out to depend on metaphor, on ambiguity, on instabilities of meaning...
—Evelyn Fox Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender and Science (Routledge, 1992) p. 28.

This rather long excerpt from Fox Keller describes fairly exactly what I take to be the crux of Sourkes' work in Genes and Genesis. By interweaving and juxtaposing the myth of genetics with the myth of Genesis Sourkes exposes the "disconcerting similarity" between ordinary and scientific language. In some ways her work, especially the exquisite text on the invitation to her recent show at YYZ, is reminiscent of Christopher Dewdney's prose poetry. Both of their work is made of simple declarative sentences that combine scientific "facts" with lyrical "observations." I'm a great fan of Dewdney's work, but sometimes get the impression that his use of scientific language is more captivated than critical — he seems enamoured of science and prepared to use its aura of truth uncritically.

Perhaps Sourkes' most persuasive metaphor is that of the library. The human genome project, which is often described as a map, is here described as a library, a set of books describing, in scientific detail, every human being. Sourkes also refers to various ancient libraries, including: "THE TALMUD TELLS OF A LIBRARY THAT PRECEDES THE CREATION OF THE WORLD."