The LAB Gallery
15 June – 5 September 2023
My visit to Katherine Sankey’s current exhibition at The LAB Gallery was filtered through the experience of having just had surgery on a broken wrist, shaping the encounter in ways that pivoted around a heightened awareness of the importance of care. When a person, or planet, is vulnerable, care is an often-unspoken need. A form of connection, it shows willingness to pay attention in the interest of doing right by someone or something.
The presented works, all created this year, pay attention to the impacts – infinitesimal to infinite – of mid-twentieth-century atomic-bomb testing and deployment. Drawing on the writings of feminist theorist and physicist, Karen Barad, and the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, the overarching title is, says the artist, “a provocative reminder of just how deeply humans have ‘invaded’, penetrated all living systems”.1
In an accompanying text, Nathan O’Donnell references the ‘bomb pulse’ associated with the 1955-63 period: “the spike in atmospheric Carbon-14 produced by the […] more than five hundred nuclear bombs [that] were exploded, above ground, in the open air, around the world, creating an atomic pulse that effectively left a time signature in every living thing on earth.”2
A recent film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory that produced this technology, suggests he grew concerned that it could wipe out civilisation. There were myriad precedents to forewarn of unintended consequence, including Hollywood’s popularisation of the novel Frankenstein, not long before the instigation of his Rubicon-crossing project. And so, it continues. Social media is regarded by many to be an unrestrained experiment, and an AI developer recently expressed regret about the dangers of the technology he pioneered.
Sankey’s exhibits materialise humanity’s capacity for care, while addressing its failures to act responsibly. She attentively conjoins manufactured and natural materials to emulate hybrid, mutant states. More uncanny than monstrous, these probe the human-nature problematic by channelling intrigue rather than fear.
While many are modular, Small Earth (Eden) (2023) features an intact variegated privet, resting horizontally on a steel grid. This upending of a small ‘tree’, a form with multiple symbolic meanings, overturns the principle of the vertical and, with it, the hierarchical structures that shape all kinds of human activity. Concurrently, as the levelling forces of storms, floods, and political unrest become increasingly prevalent, the material condition of this everyday shrub – titled after a paradise perfectly calibrated to sustain life – is emblematic of the exhibition’s concerns. Unplugged from its life source, its creeping desiccation concentrates visitor attention on dying processes (although the artist will try to keep the shrub alive for the duration of the show).
In the main gallery, eight spindly tripod sculptures, titled EarthLab (2023), are built from branches, and sections and junctures of commonplace supply lines. That they bifurcate downwards, from an asymmetric ‘elbow’, imbues them with a lurching attitude, their ‘legs’ resting on the ground or on staggered plinths. Some draw sustenance from stagnant water, while others appear to penetrate the floor or walls – suggesting, for Sankey, connection to the energies of the underworld.3
As surfaces shunt between bark, copper, and white emulsion, I find myself imagining my recently acquired metal-and-bone wrist joint. Similar anthropomorphic qualities in Breather (2023) – a large vine laid out on the floor, trailing plastic tubes analogous to an oxygen supply – recall the feeling of lying prone on a pavement, of being sedated, and later anaesthetised. Gratitude for plugging into a system of care and availing of medical technology is tinged with concern for variables there was no time to research, such as the ecological cost of harvesting titanium.
Upstairs, Activated Entrance (2023) may be a gentle call to action. A sweeping brush leaning against a demarcated section of wall urges us, perhaps, to clear away the debris falling from the tangle of branches in Perc(h) (2023) and take a look at ourselves in the mirror below. Also reflected are crustacean claws that recall the grasping side of human nature.
In Swallow (2023), a proliferation of bleached wood and plumbing overspills a bathroom sink to evoke uncontrolled growth and imbalance, while, nearby, the video pairing Craters and Handmine (2023) links large and small impacts; the massive holes caused by excavation, quarrying and bombing, and a pair of hands disturbing a patch of soil.
With the future of the planet inextricably bound to ours, what Sankey’s works appear to advocate is – above other priorities – underpinning action with appropriate attention to interconnection and consequence. The atomic bomb was justified as ‘the bomb to end all bombs’, but insufficient thought was given to the irrevocable changes it would herald, many of which are still not fully understood. Tethered to humanity’s technological aptitude is the responsibility to go beyond due diligence, acknowledging what it’s not yet possible to know – and caring about that.
Susan Campbell is a visual arts writer, art historian and artist.
1 Quote from @katherinesankeystudio, 30 May 2023.
2 Nathan O’Donnell, ‘’55-‘63’, exhibition text, published by The LAB Gallery.