Kim Morgan’s recording of people sighing and breathing in her audio artwork Exhale is a jolt. It takes me immediately back to a hospital bed, to my mother’s last breaths, to my own effort to match the rhythm of my breathing to hers. This reaction pleases Morgan, a Halifax-based interdisciplinary artist and NSCAD sculpture professor exhibiting at the Dalhousie Art Gallery to Dec. 4.
She wants people to viscerally experience the commonality among human beings by portraying people – often playfully – from the inside out in astonishingly beautiful, otherworldly images of the microscopic elements of the human body.
The experience of this show is deeply physical and emotional before one engages in all its myriad ideas around the politics and cultural and social history of blood. Key to Blood and Breath, Skin and Dust, curated by former Dalhousie Art Gallery director/curator Susan Gibson Garvey, is scanning electron microscopy (SEM), a technology that Morgan has used through Dalhousie University and that produced the ubiquitous Coronavirus image.
Straddling medicine, science and art, Morgan magnifies red and white blood cells, platelets and unidentified artifacts from 5,000 to 15,000 times, turning them into mysterious, organic shapes that she places in magical cosmic galaxies or in intimate “Blood Portraits.” She also magnifies flakes of skin, body dust and lint as well as her mother’s ashes for her comical, playful and performative Dust Disruptor sculptures designed for public spaces.
The roots of the show are personal. In 2014 both her parents were diagnosed with cancer. Her father passed away quickly; her mother was treated for ovarian cancer before dying in 2016. “I was spending a lot of time in blood transfusion centres with my mom,” Morgan says. “I was aware of the politics of blood, and I was thinking about blood relations and my relationship to my parents. Could I use blood as a metaphor?”
The first blood she saw under the microscope was her own. “I was blown away by it and I thought, ‘Does the average person know what it looks like and would it change how they see their body and how they think about other people?’ “Can I make moving, stimulating art installations using these images? Can I engage the public in these things we are repelled by, or are often afraid of?”
’While SEM images are black and white, all human blood is red., Morgan is all too aware that fallacies and fictions about blood have caused people to stigmatize, repress and kill one other from ancient times up until today. Terms like tainted blood and pure-bloods, most recently used by anti-vaxxers, are common. “The response to the project has been very emotional. Blood and breath are very intimate. We all have breath; we all have blood. It’s all red. Would I prefer people connect rather than disconnect? Absolutely.”
During a HEALS Artist’s Residency at Dalhousie Medical School she collected blood from students, family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues, making sure it came from people of different blood types, ages, backgrounds, genders, ethnicity, sexual orientation and stages of health. “I threw a lunch to get medical students to see what I did and to see if they would give me a drop of their blood.”
Blood Group hangs as a permanent installation of scanned blood cell imagery on Plexiglas panels in a corridor between the medical school and the Collaborative Health Education Building. “I think of architecture as a body and the corridor as an artery. I put blood into the artery.” Morgan names participants by their first names in her gorgeous Blood Portrait series of circular black and white photographs of cells, platelets and antibodies magnified up to 12,000 times and mounted on aluminum, which is the substrate used in the lab for blood samples. (As a sculptor materials and form are very important to Morgan, who is precise in science and metaphor.) The shapes vary from round doughy blobs to exotic, crystalline strings; hematologists were not able to fully explain this diversity of imagery to Morgan and its mystery is part of the wonder and magic in this show.
One corner of the gallery is dedicated to her mother Grace, a trained violinist, scientist and scholar who spent many hours in university libraries. Morgan had her mother’s blood transported from Saskatchewan to make a blood portrait depicting a large red blood cell as a doughy mysterious circular form folding, or, as Gibson Garvey writes, “collapsing” in on itself. This picture hangs above floor-based sculptures like giant pillows or bean bags which are the My Mother’s Ashes “Dust Disruptors” – inflated sculptures printed on a “skin” of Silpoly membrane derived from a pinch of Grace’s ashes. In an accompanying video the “balloons” float in the air at the Killam Library courtyard as a kind of resurrection that mimics tossing ashes into the air.
One of the most visually dramatic works in the show is Sigh combining breath, skin and blood. It is a taffeta curtain, 13 feet high and 40 feet long, of 35 different blood samples printed in red on black like roses cast onto a dark sea. It examines the politics (and beauty) of blood and was first created during a 2016 residency in Texas at San Antonio’s Artpace, a gallery across the street from a paid plasma donation centre.
Morgan hung the sensuous curtain in the gallery’s front window so people waiting in line to sell their plasma could see it. It was illuminated at night “and you could see it breathing.” Originally the piece moved to a breathing mechanism connected to an HVAC and designed to move in a rhythm dictated by Morgan’s own recorded sigh. At Dalhousie two timed fans give it breath. “I was thinking about the curtain as a membrane that connects the inside to the outside. The red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body.”
Gibson Garvey points out that skin has been part of Morgan’s art from the start. Range Light, Borden-Carleton PEI (2010) was a slumped lighthouse lit from within and made out of liquid latex. It was in the MassMoCA exhibition Oh Canada! and won Morgan the 2012 Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award. “We are also reminded,” Gibson Garvey writes in the catalogue, “of the feminist body works of Eva Hesse and Lynda Benglis (both of whom frequently used liquid rubber latex)” as well of Lisa Steele’s 1974 video Birthday Suit – with scars and defects “in terms of the skin as a recording surface.”
Morgan records sighs, also featured in the audio work Exhale, because they hold many different emotions, from pain and worry to the everyday “oh veys” she heard from her mother as a child. All the beauty, politics and poetry vanish for me when it comes to a skin flake magnified over 6,000 times in Relic, a light box image of the flake as a “landscape,” says Morgan, framed in a pine box like a coffin. “People have told me it’s creepy.”
But the artist exhibiting eight years of work isn’t trying to evoke discomfort. She wants to inspire awe and curiosity to change how people think about the human body and each other. And she succeeds.