The Future is Weird in Lydia Holmes' World

Queen Street Studios exhibition combines art and synthetic biology

There are probably many words that one could use to describe multi-disciplinary artist Lydia Holmes’ Bio-Technica exhibition at Queen Street Studios. Thoughtful, historically informed and maybe a little bit weird.

In one painting an onion with a writhing bouquet of long-necked, beady-eyed ostrich heads is swarmed by spike-tipped penis-wasps. In another, a meditative looking monkey with an ornamented pole-arm looks at the body of a naked woman.

Weird isn’t bad, of course. The exhibition was inspired by futurist artists of the 1900’s, who tried to conjure up the landscape of the future in their art. Influenced by fascist ideals and contemptuous of the past and tradition, futurists wanted, Holmes explains, for ‘man to become the machine'.

Holmes’s first encounter with futurism was when she was working as an intern at the Tate Modern in London. At the time, and unaware of the philosophy behind it, their work struck Holmes as out-dated. Yet these were artists obsessed with the concept of looking ahead, of constant evolution and movement. Their future had just become the past.

‘They produced this series of manifestos that are so interesting,’ says Holmes, who has included pages from the manifestos in her exhibit. ‘They totally wanted to re-create the world with plastic, artificial, synthetic forms.’

In Bio-technica, Holmes explores the preoccupation of the futurists, but does so using an informed, contemporary perspective and knowledge of current scientific development. In part the exhibition is a parody of the futurist ideals and aesthetics as established by their various manifestos.

However, it also reflects genuine modern concerns and concepts about the trajectory of science and technology. The world of Bio-technica is one inhabited by the products of genetic engineering and biotechnology. The exhibit bristles with animal/plant hybrids, living machines and unsettling combinations of both.

Some of the imagery used by Holmes is ground already well-trodden by artists in the sci-fi genre: questions such as the morality of creating life and the issue of where and when it actually begins are all familiar concepts.

There is, however, a liveliness in Holmes' creations that gives the exhibition an enviable freshness and vibrancy. Unconcerned with questions of how science impacts humanity, Holmes jumps forward past the intervention of man. There is no explanation of why these creatures were created, of what human need was answered by sentient monkeys and penis-wasps. Instead, Bio-technica explores the internal life of Holmes' ‘fiction forms’. 

How do they interact with each other? How viable are the creatures as independent lifeforms? What sicknesses or parasites might eventually afflict them? Once created, what are they?

Unlike the futurists, Holmes does not invest her vision of the future with any sense of moral or technological approval. It simply is, in all its onion-ostrich and bio-form complexity. Established, self-propagating and beyond the control of, or need for, humanity. Weird, maybe, but also intriguing, provocative and intelligent. 

Bio-Technica runs at the Queen Street Studios from September 1 to October 1.