Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Series: Sibyl

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

Canadian artist and architect Philip Beesley has contributed to the 18th Biennale of Sydney 2012, the installation Hylozoic Series, an interactive, immersive, and sensory installation at Cockatoo Island. Beesley’s work explores the thresholds between the animate and the inanimate, the natural and the artificial, and the intelligent and the mechanized, working across the disciplines of art and architecture. The installation is underpinned by the philosophy of Hylozoism. Beesley and Jonathan Tyrell explain Hylozoism as the ‘ancient perception of life arising out of material…arising from the chaos–borne quickening of air, water, and stone. Implicit in this way of seeing the world is an oscillation and it might be said a certain ambiguity, between the parts and the whole. Out of this oscillation emerges a spirit that is not fully transcendent of its material origins and yet somehow distinct’ (379).

Hylozoic Series, Philip Beesley, Cockatoo Island, Sydney, The 18th Biennale of Sydney, 2012, Photo: Anuradha Chatterjee

Physically, the Hylozoic Series consists of ‘hovering filter environments, composed of tiny laser cut acrylic elements’, ‘groves of meshwork’, ‘scented wicks and glands’, ‘delicate glass spines’, ‘seaweed-like filter clusters housing protocell flasks’, and ‘gauze bladders’. Caressing the glass spine makes it vibrate madly, which prompts the feathery wings to raise themselves. As we move on, the proximity sensors illuminate parts of the clusters in response to closeness and movement. Parts of the installation remain inert as they refuse to obey aggressive prompting. The balloon-like elements obviously expand and contract in response to the flow of people through the installation. Beesley and Rachel Armstrong also explain that the flasks and bladders contain protocells (‘chemical models of primitive artificial cells’), which grow due to visitors’ presence. These are imperceptible.

In Hylozoic Ground (2010), Beesley explains: “Akin to the functions of a living system, embedded machine intelligence allows human interaction to trigger breathing, caressing, and swallowing motions and hybrid metabolic exchanges” (13). The composition is therefore a sensorial and charged environment, of ‘exquisitely deliberate weakness’. It is neither living nor inert, but somewhere in the middle (transitional). It is intended as an embodiment of collective or composite identity, emerging out of ‘empathy, and perhaps even a space of desire, between the subject and its milieu’ (380). This sets it apart from what is ordinarily understood as interactive installation, now a well rehearsed genre.

Hylozoic Series, Philip Beesley, Cockatoo Island, Sydney, The 18th Biennale of Sydney, 2012, Photo: Anuradha Chatterjee

While the Hylozoic Series makes a significant contribution to technical and poetic possibilities in the networked and multi disciplinary fields of ‘sustainable design, geotextiles, material science, environmental engineering, robotics, psychology, and biotechnology’, it is somewhat alienating. There is little chance of understanding the installation without ‘surrendering’ oneself fully to the language of the scholarship surrounding it. Also, the experience was not immersive. This was possibly because the visit to installation was closely managed, visitors told what they could touch and not touch, and told to follow the spatial split in the installation (one part responsive to touch, the other responsive to proximity and motion), thereby making it a disappointing experience and certainly incapable of producing what Beesley notes as the space of desire and empathic affinities. Ironically, the beauty of the installation too was overwhelming. The reliance on the familiar images of hybrid and multiple ecologies – skeletal, feathery, glandular, membranous, winged, mesh, grove like – is too invested in formalism, and hence the visual. For me, this undermined the accentuation of other senses. The Hylozoic Series is no doubt a key feature in the Biennale. It is on display until 16 September 2012. Video available here.

Sources:; Philip Beesley and Jonathan Tyrell, ‘Transitional Fields: Empathy and Affinity’, In (eds) Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, 18th Biennale of Sydney: All our Relations (Woolloomooloo, NSW: Biennale of Sydney, 2011); Philip Beesley and Rachel Armstrong, ‘Soil and Protoplasm: The Hylozoic Ground Project’, Architectural Design 81, 2 (March/April 2011): 78–89; Philip Beesley, Hayley Isaacs, Pernilla Ohrstedt, Hylozoic Ground: Liminal Responsive Architecture (Ontario: Riverside Architectural Press, 2010).

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