#otherworlds2 – Kathryn Cowen at AirSpace Projects

Sydney artist Kathryn Cowen’s exhibition #otherworlds2 is on show at AirSpace Projects, Sydney from 6 – 21 November 2021. My catalogue essay is below.

The other day, an ad for a fast fashion website scrolled its way up the screen.

PLEATHER, it read. So Much Pleather You’ll Feel Like You’re In The Matrix. Two models, unlikely to have yet been born when the film in question was released in 1999, lounged against each other clad in black plastic-leather outfits, against a backdrop of a melty vector grid.

It seems like a delicious coincidence that as we slowly emerge, blinking into the light after pandemic-induced lockdowns, we are being encouraged to clothe ourselves in the trends from the time of a different bug, over 20 years ago. The apocalyptic fear, uncertainty and speculation that the Y2K Bug generated has vanished, replaced with a pleather-clad nostalgia for a dystopian future. At the time, the Y2K bug seemed like a symptom of civilisation’s advancing digitisation. As it turns out, our relentless physical encroachment on the natural world was the real problem, and a zoonotic disease was the thing that would send us back into a panic-buying frenzy, 20 years after people had abandoned their millennium bunkers.

In #otherworlds2, Kathryn Cowen invites us to imagine a new future, led by the speculations of the present: synthetic biology, the search for alien life, science-fictional worldbuilding. Like the locus for these explorations, the Deep Space gallery of Airspace Projects is a laboratory, where one of Cowen’s paintings has been cultivated into another world, element by element. Light, colour, sound and scent conditions are all controlled by the artist in this environment – control that allows the viewer freedom to play with endless possibilities. In this laboratory-installation, a phosphorescent painting that depicts vegetation on either land or the seabed spills out into a biofuturistic world where incantations are uttered, strange smells swirl, and the light startles as it switches between artificial day and artificial night.

Sculptures inhabit this space like new creatures born into a humidicrib under an incandescent lamp. Physically attaching natural materials to synthetic ones is a challenging process, both in the artist’s studio and the scientist’s laboratory; once fused, a new type of thing emerges. Rubber cords cascade like a horse’s tail from a geometric fixture; painted plant stamens push upwards from a fluffy pink bulge; whipper-snipper plastic cords prolapse from an orifice of faux fur; synthetic purple extrusions recall brain matter; blue cable-tie anemones bloom; green sponges glimmer with flecked constellations. Their forms echo that of cells, with tendrils recalling the dreaded spike protein. There is a fine line between gaining and ceding control.

In this cave, this world within a room, the viewer is left to perceive the world of which they are protagonist. In the absence of other figures a soundtrack forms the accompaniment, interspersing the poetic invocations of Cowen’s collaborator Gareth Jenkins with an improvised soundscape performed on found, homemade and conventional instruments, echoing the hybrid nature of the sculptures in #otherworlds2. Jenkins intones:

This is not today or tomorrow
this is sometime else.
This is a dotted line
We’ve been following
all our lives.
No deviation
in the grand mean vector
under this Ultra Violet Light

this is the inclination compass
in Spring
getting it all just right.