From images of augmented bodies and wild flights of biological fancy to an algorithm that makes your face “perfect”, this new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria asks how technology is changing our bodies.
There are 13 years of work on display, from digital images that resemble the more alien end of fashion photography to thought-provoking films. As our lives become more and more tech-enhanced, McRae asks the big questions. What will genetic engineering and mapping the human genome do to our sense of identity? If we’re going into space, and we’ll be spending future lifetimes there, what impact will that have on our minds?
The result of this line of questioning is a series of striking, colourful images and wild flights of biological fancy. Some ideas are realised with simple means such as digital photography. Cardboard, balloons and pantyhose are strapped across faces, obscuring identity. Bodies are covered in rubber balloons that create hanging sacs of colour. Cotton swabs dripping with paint look like feathers. A man wears an unwieldy outfit made of pantyhose stuffed with soil and grass seeds. One image shows a woman in a cloud of blue soap foam, with no context or explanation as to what this might be.
Before long the show moves onto video and interactive work. Many are collaborations, from music videos and artwork for pop artists – including Architecture In Helsinki (The Biological Bakery, 2014, the video for the track Dream a Little Crazy) and Robyn (the cover of her 2010 album Body Talk) – to a branded short film for Aesop (Morphe, 2012), which features a swallowable perfume. There’s also an intriguing and mesmerising group of short films, culminating in the 10-minute The Institute of Isolation (2016) that adapts the technology and processes used to prepare astronauts’ bodies for space travel into something more human and emotional.
You can also stand in front of a webcam and have your face mapped and “perfected” by an algorithm (designed by University of Melbourne academic Dr Niels Wouters), then realised into an interactive video called Biometric Mirror (2018). It’s all based on the Marquardt Mask, a standard of perfection used by plastic surgeons.
The gallery describes McRae as a science-fiction artist, but a lot of the ideas presented in the show sit on the border of fiction and fact. The technologies she discusses are daunting, but McRae never loses sight of the human factors: emotion, beauty and the bit you can’t quite put your finger on; the indefinable.