Selected from an open call for applications and commissioned by Queen’s University Belfast, Capillarium (2016) by Kevin Killen is a work located outside the recently-built Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, an interdisciplinary research centre building on the Health Sciences campus.

A self-portrait of sorts, Killen created the design for Capillarium by mapping small blood vessels in his eye into a new pattern, reminiscent of the intricate micro vascular networks found inside the body: “My process involves working with a degree of chance; reflection, mapping and repetitive forms all play a part in the photographic drawings, as I develop the singular pattern to a point where a new complete pattern emerges.” This pattern was laser cut into mild steel fashioned into a hollow sculptural sphere slightly exceeding the average head height of a student at Queen’s. It is solidly constructed and undoubtedly demonstrates an understanding of the qualities of the material used.

Aesthetically, Capillarium is instantly recognisable as relating to the body. Its branch-like organic motif and orbital shape resemble various internal structures; its surface is the colour of blood. The title is derived from vasorum capillarium, Latin for ‘capillaries’ – the fine branching network of blood vessels that connect arteries and veins. The sculpture’s industrial finish appears wipe-clean and hygienic like a piece of medical equipment. Capillarium makes visible the internal structures inside each of us with the impassive, clinical directness of a 3D scientific model found in a biology classroom. 

Capillaries generate continuous production and exchange water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and many other substances between our blood and our tissues at a molecular level every second of our waking lives. Capillarium’s stark simplicity avoids the presence of these complex, invisible, uncontrollable and incomprehensible interior processes. Its rigid, empty structure provides a description of the aesthetics of the body that is antithetical to the dark, bewildering, fleshy, moist, bloody, entropic mess within.

The study of the inner workings of the human body began centuries ago with the dissection of cadavers by doctors, surgeons and students, and the anatomical drawings of Da Vinci. Today, despite advances in biomedical research, our knowledge of the body continues to be revised. New discoveries about its capabilities and potential are made and published on a daily basis and represent one of science’s ‘final frontiers’. Take for instance a recent news report calling the human body “an untapped source of drugs” after it was found that our noses might hold a community of bacteria capable of producing the next generation of novel antibiotics.

Technologies and medicine like those developed in laboratories all over the world and at universities like Queen’s shape and question our relationships with our physical selves. The Welcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine accommodates some 330 members of staff specialising in research into finding cures for eye disease and diabetes, and focuses on the development of a global programme to aid understanding of the genetics of complex chronic diseases. Despite working directly with some of these researchers, Killen’s approach seems less curious and more engaged with formal concerns.

Perhaps this marks a missed opportunity by Queen’s University to commission a speculative object that can destabilise established depictions of the body, and adequately represent a field of research that is constantly at the edge of innovation. Perhaps it is also a missed opportunity by the artist to go beyond representation and further engage with the type of new research and radical findings that the Welcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine was designed to facilitate.

Ultimately, it is hard to pass judgement on works such as Capillarium. Located outdoors on the grounds of a publicly funded educational institution, it does not benefit from the type of context a white cube space can provide, nor is it strictly speaking ‘public art’. Though visitors to Queen’s University and members of the public – if they are aware of its existence, as it is not immediately visible from the street – can view the work, Capillarium’s intended audience is primarily made up of students and researchers. For them, this sculpture may connect to the research they are conducting. For some, however, Capillarium might too closely resemble the type of durable outdoor sculpture/public art found across Ireland and the UK to warrant a closer look.

The commissioning of a new work of (public) art is a rare and important thing that should happen more often. Crucially, it is also an opportunity to create something that, in the words of Bristol-based public art organisation Situations, doesn’t embellish but interrupt.

Alissa Kleist is a Belfast-based curator.

Image: Kevin Killen, Capillarium, 2016.

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