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This exhibition can piss right off. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s artificial intelligence sculpture did a reading of my face and thought I was 43. It also said I was angry and that I wasn’t smiling. Of course I wasn’t bloody smiling mate, I’m 32. Suddenly I was walking around an exhibition trying to figure out if acupuncture could help get rid of the bags under my eyes, or if I should get botox or a holistic charcoal mask with swan’s milk moisturising lotion. Hocus pocus, miracle cures, that’s what I was looking for.
And boom, narrative segue: that right there is the whole point of this exhibition. All the work here, by six international contemporary artists, is a reaction to Cambridge University’s Casebooks Project, a collection of 50,000 ‘medical’ files by two sixteenth-century English ‘astrologer-physicians’. Tarot, horoscopes, alchemy – medicine in Tudor times was a riot.
A leather calf by Rémy Markowitsch, covered in the same materials as the casebooks themselves, sits in the middle of the room, reciting the ailments, fears and worries of the people of the time – hysterical women sent loopy by the movements of the planets, that kind of thing. The words feel antiquated, silly, pre-scientific.
Behind, a monumental structure of steel, crystal and glass by Tunga drips liquid into clay pots. It’s like stumbling into the abandoned lab of a giant mythical alchemist. In the centre of the room, a big ankle-deep pool is filled with crystal-encrusted vases and a loping, greenery-covered arch. It feels like a display at a trad fair: like it’s trying to sell you new medicine, recently discovered aromatherapy cures.
In the darkened spaces in the rear, Hershman Leeson’s total bastard of an AI predicts your future through tarot or horoscopes while Lindsay Seers’s awesome three-screen film takes you on a miserable journey of heartache and regret through science and alchemy.
The whole show is a little shonkily put together, a bit of a mess, but the work tells a story of hope and endeavour; a story of sickness, depression and pain, and the lengths people will go to in order to get better. Science might have moved on, but humans are still frail old things.