Every organic body of a living being is a kind of divine machine, or natural automaton, infinitely surpassing all artificial automatons. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)I In Katja Prins's works in glass, clear and carefully balanced contrasts of flowing and precision-made elements merge to reflect her interest in the interconnectedness of man and machine. Her meticulously crafted glass objects and brooches are exquisitely composed, yet intentionally enigmatic and open to interpretation. The affinity between the paradoxical nature of glass-its fragility and strength-and the central concept underlying Prins's work-the vulnerability and resilience of the human body-makes glass a highly suitable metaphor for her explorations.
In her investigations of the relationship between the body and the machine, Prins joins a continuum of Western artists who over the last one hundred years have focused on the impact of technology and medicine on the human body and identity.
Sigmund Freud may well be considered the seminal force behind artistic explorations into individual and cultural identity. His thesis that the unconscious mind affects behavior in ways in which the subject is unaware induced a great shift in the understanding of human nature at the turn of the twentieth century and laid the foundation on which Dadaist and Surrealist artists explored the relationship between mind and body.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), arguably the most influential figure in twentieth-century art, is credited with inaugurating the modern artist's engagement with the question of gender and identity. With his Readymades-common objects presented as art-he demonstrated that the appreciation of an object is not solely dependent on its physical structure or appearance but is derived from cultural value systems external to the object.
Influenced by Duchamp, French performance artist Orlan (b. 1947) has used her own body as an art object to express her views on how one's external appearance affects one's sense of self. Considering her body as a Readymade, she has undergone a series of televised plastic surgeries since the 1970s, defining her art as "a self-portrait in the classical sense, realized through the technology of our time."
Australian artist Stelarc (b. 1946) actively explores the concept of the body and its relationship with technology through human-machine interfaces incorporating the most recent advances in medical imaging, prosthetics, and robotics. He is enthusiastic about the future of a technologically evolved human for whom aging has been defeated, body parts are replaceable, and senses are augmented to enhance speed and acuity.
A contrary view of technological intervention was presented by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac (b. 1962) when he inserted a microchip into his ankle during a performance in 1997. On one level, the implant warns of a time when a microchip implanted at birth could become a person's primary form of identification, if not identity. On another, the implant suggests a biological future when biocompatible interfaces inside the body will indelibly merge the human and the machine, the biological and the technological, forever altering the relationship between mind and body.
Katja Prins's view of the body as the sum of its parts, organic and mechanical, places her work firmly within this art historical continuum and ongoing contemporary discourse. The fact that she chooses to explore issues of personal identity and external appearances through the medium of jewelry, with its intimate associations with the human body, enriches her dialogue, as does her reliance on the physical attributes and symbolic values of glass.
Central to Katja Prins's work is the question of whether the ability to augment or alter the body technologically and through medical interventions represents a major step forward for mankind or an intrusion on individuality and privacy. Prins contends that to the extent that humans can change their bodies and sculpt them, their bodies become extensions of their minds, allowing individuals to take charge of their own physical appearance and, in so doing, to modify other people's perceptions of them. Yet, she acknowledges that the imposition of the manmade on the organic is not always positive and encourages viewers to make up their own minds through her work.
Prins has been engaged for over a decade in her exploration of the inextricable links between our bodies and the artificial elements on which we have come to depend, during which time she has used a variety of materials, among them silver, rubber, and porcelain, to visualize these relationships. It is through the pieces in her Anatorium series, however, startling contrasts of blown and laboratory glass held together with red sealing wax, that the artist most explicitly reveals the conflicts and uncertainty in our attitudes about organic and manmade forms.
Prins began work on the Anatorium series in 2002 by collaborating with a master glassblower at the historic Glass Centre of Leerdam to create a series of rounded objects suggestive of human organs. Selecting those that were the most striking abstractions, Prins cut and sandblasted the hardened glass forms to give them a white opacity that hides their interiors and emphasizes their shapes. Next the artist attached elements of clear laboratory glass, the precision, clarity, and scientific associations of which stand in sharp contrast to the asymmetry and naturalness of the biomorphic forms.
The dramatic results can be seen in Anatorium 2 (page 50), a white sac-like shape from which arises interconnected tubes of clear laboratory glass. Red sealing wax joins the biomorphic and manmade elements, and the entire assemblage rests on a pool of red sealing wax whose color and coagulant appearance make an unmistakable reference to blood and bodily fluids. This blood-red base adds a sense of drama and disquiet to the depiction that goes beyond the visual impact. In Anatorium 1 (page 48), two elongated shapes, one larger than the other, are distinctly biomorphic, but they cannot be directly related to any specific organ. Again sealing wax unites these unequal components with a laboratory glass connector suggesting medical intervention.
In setting the sensuous, opaque, blown forms of the Anatorium series against clear laboratory glass, Prins suggests that the straight tubes, right-angled stopcocks, and precision symmetries impose order on the organic structures, controlling and modifying bodily functions. Whether this intervention constitutes a beneficial or an injurious extension or modification of the body is left for the viewer to decide.
In comparison, the message of the brooches and rings in Prins's 2004 Machines Are Us series is more certain. Hard, planar silver surfaces contrast with molded plastic in objects that are refined and graceful but with a coolness suggestive of a technology that dehumanizes even as it improves the body. Similarly, in compositions such as GlassWear 5 (page 55) and GlassWear 2 (page 54, top right) (2005), abstracted organs of opaque blown glass are dominated by mechanical silver tubes that leave no doubt as to their alien and invasive nature.
It seems counterintuitive that a single medium-glass-should be more expressive of complexity and paradox than a combination of media. That such marked distinctions as human/machine, natural/artificial, fragility/strength, can be articulated through the use of a single "manmade" medium is remarkable. Equally astonishing is the ambiguity that can be conveyed through glass. Ultimately, the provocative forms of Katja Prins's Anatorium series are a tribute to her artistry and craftsmanship. Communicating on both a visceral and an intellectual level, she convinces us that glass truly is the ideal medium to express uncertainty as to whether the body is healed or abused by the machines we rely upon.
Ursula Ilse-Neuman, curator Museum of Arts and Design, New York
Photography: Eddo Hartmann, Francis Willemstijn
I Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Monadology, §64, 1714, translated from the German by Robert Latta, http://philosophy.eserver.org/leibniz-monadology.txt