Clint Wilson

In science, it is a truism that the study of life requires death: nature morte. Over time, science collects, documents and sacrifices numberless creatures in its pursuit of truth. In his installation Generelle Morphologie.1 Clint Wilson suspends a flock of such hapless beings, gold finches, on wires from which they twitch and dance as if alive. Decades ago, the zombie Passeriformes were bagged for a natural history collection; today, biologists wait with greater patience and certain knowledge that electric lights and plate glass windows will wreck their havoc for them. Vivified by electronic prostheses, the avian cyborgs point to the death drive at the heart of modern science. In their uniformity, they parody print editions or multiples and the imputed order of the natural world. On the walls of the installation, diagrams based on Ernst Haeckel's 19th-century phylogenic "trees" trace speculative evolution and subversive order. A bizarre story of miraculous levitation or "sonic flight" unfolds on a compact disk player. The narrative is embedded within an account of physical laws and scientific data, by which the artist vouches for his personal knowledge of these esoteric events. In exposing the scientific record to alternate readings. Wilson's contraptions challenge universal myths of progress and authority. Uncertainty haunts science as a dark assassin. According to Jean-Francois Lyotard, science has but on "language game": denotation. "One is a scientist if one can produce verifiable of falsifiable statements about referents accessible to the experts."2 Yet the legitimacy of science rests on emancipatory narratives and epic fables of progress, which undermines exclusive claims to truth. Karl Popper proposed early in the twentieth century that science advanced not through careful observation and deduction but through wild leaps of insight "always controlled and sharpened by falsification, by refutation, by the single decisive experiment or [black] swan."3 The certainty of science fears those facts that rattle constellations - prove it wrong. However, in numerous instances, error held the upper hand. Haeckel's dream of evolutionary eugenics fed appalling Nazi doctrines. Evidence from Canada's Burgess Shale shattered all existing theories of natural order.4 The persistent mystery of bird song drove Fernando Nottebohm to buck entrenched skepticism towards adult neurogensis.5 Lyotard applies Wittgenstein's linguistic metaphor to science with its love of order:

"Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses..." 6

Clint Wilson gathers visual metaphors that litter the path of scientific progress like cast-off fossils. Haeckel's elegant- if flawed - phylogenic charts comprise his personal Burgess Shale. Wilson turns the diagrams back on themselves, digitally altering and extending them to produce "diseased arbours" or evolutionary mandalas. His trees unfold as an infinitely reproducible series of inkjet prints that transform the exhibition into a garden enclosure or arboreal theatre. In open-air theaters or "green cabinets," Renaissance courts staged extravagant pageants representing Paradise on earth under the benevolent rule of the Prince.7 The delicate traceries of Wilson's diagrams suggest boughs of pleached or plaited ilex, clipped hedges or topiary fantasies that framed clearings used for these imaginative divertissements. As in those classical forms, here actors and audience also fuse and intermix. The gallery visitor activates the performing finches, her movements, implicating her in turn as but one spectacle, one categorical trace among others in an all-embracing symbolic order. Inspired by Darwin, Haeckel focused on marine invertebrates: radiolarians, poriferans (sponges) and annelids (segmented worms), which he illustrated in a series of stunning chromolithographs. Countering Darwin's natural selection, Haeckel believed the environment worked on individual species to produce diversity and that organic life developed from inorganic substances such as crystals. He was the first to coin the term "ecology" to express the essential unity of organic and inorganic nature. His best-known aphorism, "ontogeny (embryonic development) recapitulates phylogeny (evolutionary development of a species)," has been discredited in its "strong form," but his theory does prove entrance for Wilson's critique of scientific truth. If Haeckel errs, who else stands but a stroke away from Uncertainty's assassin? Our instrumental reading of the Book of Nature is fundamentally flawed, drained as it is of spiritual insight or will to see beyond the horizon of our own species. What if Haeckel assertions of unified nature were cleansed of evil polemics ("politics is applied biology") to redirect science towards a more holistic embrace of Nature? Stranger things have happened: scientists currently reexamine the relationship between developing organisms and their evolutionary trajectories; stem cells introduced into complex neural matrices adapt to new directives. Clint Wilson's willful collision of ethics, erotics and aesthetics calls here for an unpinning of repressive institutional authority.

Amy Gogarty

1 The title of Wilson's exhibition comes from Ernst Haeckel's Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, 2 vols. Berlin: George Reimer, 1866. Haeckel's evolutionary trees, which form the basis of Wilson's prints, are depicted in this study.

2 "Excerpts from the Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge," A Postmodern reader, eds. Joseph Natali and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: University of New York Press, 1993, 81.

3 Gopnik, Adam. "The Porcupine: A Pilgrimage to Popper," The New Yorker, April 1, 2002, 90.

4 Gould, Steven Jay. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989, 55.

5 Specter, Michael. "Rethinking the Brain," The New Yorker, July 23, 2001,42-53.

6 Quoted in excerpt from " The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge (1984), "A Critical and Cultural Theory reader, eds. Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992, 191-192.

7 Miller, Naomi. "The Theatre in the Garden: From Artifice to Artifact," Theatregarden Bestarium: The Garden as Theatre as Museum, Marianne Brouwer et al. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990, 80-81.