SPONTANEOUS GENERATION  by Ruth Roach Pierson  (2007)

Still obsessed with the themes addressed in her fall 2006 exhibit Dreadful Visitations – microbe-born diseases, their troubling increase in our globalized world, and our inadequate defence against their onslaught – conceptual installation artist Elaine Whittaker shifts her attention in Spontaneous Generation from the accelerated means of dissemination to the accelerating mode of global climate change that is giving rise to new infectious diseases and escalating their germination and spread. Her focus has also expanded – from microbes visible only under a microscope (although we encounter them in this exhibit too) to the macroscopic modifications of the earth’s surface as the globe warms. The emphasis now is on our reluctance or refusal to take account of the disastrous consequences of these changes, as though they are simply part of an inevitable cycle and not human-induced. This is a way of thinking as purblind as the theory of spontaneous generation believed in for millennia.

Spontaneous Generation is divided into two main sections – glacial degeneration and the post-glacial with a linking transitional passage. Environmentally sensitive to her core, Whittaker uses recycled materials in both sections, like the chips of home-grown salt crystals preserved for years from previous shows and the two huge metal hemispheres rescued from a dumpsite. In section one, petri dishes float on the wall, each containing a crystalline salt fragment. Formed on top of hot salt water (similar to the way ice cools and spreads), the effect is suggestive of ice floes breaking off from melting polar caps. Complementing the petri dishes are two sets of glass jars containing laboratory test tubes of vibrant blue-green crystals. Labeled with the names of melting glaciers and ice sheets of the Arctic and Antarctic, the jars alert us to the fact that soon this is all that may remain of our northern and southern polar circles: crystal remnants of that once frozen world, now sealed in jars and only viewable from behind glass in a natural history museum.

Moving beyond the space of glacial degeneration, one enters the transitional passage. Here we are met with three photographic portraits. Two generations of females in Whittaker’s family stare straight at the viewer, each relative eerily holding a microscope slide clamped in her mouth. A closer look disconcertingly reveals that each slide is painted with a depiction of one of the escalating mosquito-born diseases – West Nile virus, Dengue fever, and malaria – ready to be ingested. 

From here we move into the hauntingly blue and filtered space of the post-glacial, the lapis lazuli hue created by walls draped in sheets of ice-blue furnace filter. On one wall we encounter ourselves distortedly reflected in the mounted hemispheric mirrors, our image as contributor to global calamity. Nearby but barely visible behind filtering blue hover the admonitory silhouettes of silent witnesses, the diseased, the dying, and the dead. And it is in this space that we confront the three menacing sisters of lack -- Manque de lucidité, Manque de volonté, Manque de sagesse – a trio dubbed by Whittaker “the infection protection fashion collection for a post-glacial world.” One mannequin wears a maxi-skirt and breast shields of N95 respiratory masks. The torso of a second, who sports a mini-skirt and bikini top formed of cool blue surgical masks, is covered by camouflage mosquito netting. Modeling a short skirt of N95 masks, the third Manque is shrouded in floor-length white gauzy mosquito netting like a ghostly wedding veil. The placement on all three sisters of masks impregnated with mosquito corpses, suggestive of pubic hair and breast aureoles, sexualizes the mannequins and introduces a note of humour into what otherwise might be a relentlessly doom-predicting exhibit. Another humourous piece develops the fashion theme in the direction of accessories -- black velvet stands display bracelets and necklaces made of vegetables purported to possess anti-microbial properties. But because these chili peppers, garlic cloves, onions, and ginger root are dehydrated and encased in salt, they have lost their potency. Instead they, like the mannequins’ outfits, provide only a layer of glamour over a grim reality, offering no protection against, or cure for, a post-glacial world teeming with the microbes of infectious disease. 

A final piece reprises the show’s message of impending disaster: a milky-white salt slab evocative of thick ice under a blanket of snow drifts in a shallow pyrex dish. Stranded on the slab’s surface sits an emaciated polar bear, its coat covered in ice crystals, surrounded by a vast sea of dead mosquitoes.

Throughout the exhibit visitors are serenaded by uneasy, post-glacial muzak. Wandering between melodic and discordant, this free-tempo music evokes worrisome insect whines and melancholy whale calls. Frequent disruptions by Big-Brotheresque announcements urge all to stay calm – and complacent.

If it took a Louis Pasteur to disprove the theory of spontaneous generation, it is taking the efforts of the likes of Al Gore and Elaine Whittaker to disprove the notion we humans have nothing to do with global warming. And while Whittaker’s exhibit will unfortunately reach far fewer than Gore’s film and lecture tours, her aesthetics of disaster emblazon on the minds of those fortunate enough to see this show an array of hauntingly beautiful images impossible to forget.





Ruth Roach Pierson is Professor emerita of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto and author of numerous academic studies, Ruth Roach Pierson has published two volumes of poetry with BuschekBooks of Ottawa: Where No Window Was (2002) and Aide-Mémoire (2007), which was named a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2008. Her third poetry collection, Contrary, was launched in 2011 by Tightrope Books of Toronto. With Sue MacLeod, she is currently at work on an anthology of movie poems entitled I Found It at the Movies to be published by Tightrope Books in spring 2013.