BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH
When Karl Grimes launched his photography exhibition Still Life in 1998, the reaction was swift and hysterical. That exhibition saw him vilified as a hate figure in the tabloids and his installation was the fodder for two consecutive front pages bearing headlines like 'How low can you sink?'. "People wanted the Gallery of Photography to pull down the blinds on the windows at certain times of the day," says Grimes, who is completely engaging and engaged, ignoring his meal in favour of coffee, cigarettes and conversation.
While Grimes was at the time accused of exploiting dead babies - the exhibition was based on collections of congenital malformation 'specimens', embryos and foetuses preserved in formaldehyde - his exhibition was, on further exploration, one of the most tender and dignified treatments of the subject possible. In his current exhibition, Grimes has returned again to the themes of retrieval and resurrection with his stunning photographic prints, light boxes and video installation of animal foetuses and embryos.
In Future Nature, which is on view in the 5th Gallery at the Guinness Storehouse, Grimes returns to his fascination with the asymmetry of nature and its beautiful freaks. The reaction is likely to be less outrageous this time round as, firstly, Grimes is working with animals (they don't tend to stir people's outrage quite as effectively) and secondly, he has imbued them with a kind of Disney World Technicolour that makes them a lot easier on the eye. They have a 'cute' appeal that dead babies simply cannot conjure. Images of foetal fawns with their eyes closed, backlit with red and blue light, are fascinating and curiously beautiful rather than repulsive.
As with the Still Life exhibition, Grimes accidentally came across the material for this show, discovering the collections of embryos in a magazine. "These two collections, one in the Tornblad Institute in Lund, Sweden, and one in the Hubrecht Laboratory in Utrecht, Holland, are the biggest and most famous in the world. They're locked away in a basement covered in dust. Researchers don't use them in the current scientific climate and there's little funding for this area of embryo research." After the criticism he received the last time, it seems odd that Grimes would return to working with foetuses and embryos again but it is a fascination he is reluctant to relinquish. "I've always been interested in the overlap between life and death," he says.
Grimes was forced to confront this overlap when he became involved in the New York based AIDS activism group, Act Up, after losing many of his close friends to the disease. He has always been interested in medical science and apart from his memorial work for AIDS victims, his exhibition R Block dealt with medical records from a research lab in New York that showed photographs of 'best case' examples of injuries, symptoms and afflictions. "In a way Future Nature is about that too, the kind of presentation of best case examples of species." Grimes is also interested in the interface between science and art. "The scientists at the institutes have very different perspectives and interests in embryos and their public presentation. During the photographing, they were keen to forefront the rarest, smallest or oldest embryos, the scientific trophies, and very often these were not the ones of most interest to me on an artistic level, because they wouldn't have the portrait or metaphoric information I was looking for."
Again in this exhibition Grimes is subverting our concepts of beauty, normality and the ways in which we look at nature. His use of light in these photographs changes the way these specimens would normally be viewed. "Very simply, something I'm fascinated with is early stereoscope living colour American television. The phrase 'Presented in Living Colour' used to fascinate me because I never quite knew what living colour was. In Future Nature, I use the notion as a way of imbuing life to death. Science research images are often shown in monochrome because of the historic codes and conventions which have evolved in a quest for objectivity. To me those codes are like a box that I like to open, question, stand on its head and look at the ways those classifications have either stopped inquiry or fantasy or different ways of looking. For example, prior to scientific classification, natural occurrences such as congenital malformation, were not a pathological condition or something that was necessarily evil or seen as unnatural. Often they were viewed as divine wonders and prodigies. When the academy of medicine and science began to classify and tell us how to understand our bodies, it meant that we lost control of interpretation in many ways. That's not to discount science, but we tend to fall back on science's facts, which are under investigation daily anyway."
When asked what he wanted to achieve with this exhibition he says simply, "I just wanted to look and make a personal record. What I tried to do was to work on a level of transcendence, a requiem and a genesis, with the limbo state that these specimens are in, dead but alive and on display. I was thinking of the illuminated holy picture, the idea of martyrs dying in great pain and the viewing and illumination of that placed in mysticism or superstition, like holy statues that are 'living' but dead."
The reverence and revitalisation that Grimes infuses his subjects with ensures that his pictures become iconic if not indeed transcendent.