There’s a tempest brewing on the walls of Honfleur Gallery, but at first sight you would be hard pressed to comprehend the drama unfolding before your very eyes. Stepping in the front door, you confront the works of Selin Balci’s Arena hanging quietly inert in one straight line circling the gallery’s three walls. For her first solo show with the gallery, Balci has created what appears to be abstract watercolors in circular patterns, bookended by geographic studies using a similar painting technique. The works are united in a color palette dominated by shades of umbers, browns and blacks.
Closer inspection reveals mysteries brewing on the surface of the works. Patterns emerge on the surface of the paper, as biomorphic shapes push upon one another, creating rigid borders in ways no watercolor treatment can create. The shapes create moments of both translucency and opacity as they collide, giving the impression of bodies enveloping one another. Tightly packed, what once seemed inert now feels frenetic, teaming with energy. The exhibition checklist reveals the source of this confusion as it simultaneously shocks the senses: Balci uses microbial growths as her medium of choice.
The artist identifies with the nascent bio-art movement which conceptualizes living material (tissue, bacteria or other organisms) as building blocks for the creation of original work. While the concept may feel far-fetched or even provocative, it presents a unique point of departure for Balci’s skills and interests. With degrees in both science (forest engineering) and art (intermedia and studio art), it feels like a natural landing point for an artist seeking to follow both her passions in ways unimaginable just a few short years ago.
In the wrong hands, the concept could quickly turn gimmicky. Fortunately for us, Balci’s works are well-grounded in a critical view of the human condition informed in equal parts by biology, history and art theory. In her world, microscopic molds and fungi act as stand-ins for human colonies, shining a glaring light on our baser natures. The very title of the show–Arena–alludes to this clash of bodies where only the hardiest survive. Her artist statement defines an arena as, “a place or scene of activity or debate,” but that definition minimizes the physical tension we see playing out within the works. Historically arenas were also a place of physical confrontation, even bloodlust, and similar battles play out across the surface of the works as bacteria vie for limited space and nourishment. This struggle is obvious in map-based works like The World I or America but is also subtly at play in the Arena series.
The science behind the process is almost as fascinating as the works themselves. Balci notes that microscopic fungus and mold spores blanket the plant life around us — they’re even floating between your body and your computer screen at this very moment. The artist collects samples from her own back yard, transferring minute growths into petri dishes. She allows these miniscule colonies to grow within the petri dish and as large colonies form, she refrigerates the container, slowing their metabolism down until she’s ready to use the material for her work. Balci then preps the surface of her work with a potato-based starch in liquid form that will act as the food source for the microbes. Careful application of the liquid is important, especially for the works displaying geographic boundaries; dry areas will remain free of growth, forcing the microbes to “fight” for sustenance in a finite landscape. After painstakingly applying small dabs of fungus, the pieces are sealed within a climate-controlled box to maintain strict temperature and humidity levels. Depending on a work’s size, it may remain locked away for as few as two weeks to longer than a month while the organisms metastasize on the surface of the piece. When she is satisfied with the growth, the box is opened, dropping the humidity and short-circuiting their growth process. The microbes are then killed off with common household chemicals and thin coat of resin is applied to bind the growths permanently in place.
The resulting works demonstrate the precarious nature of societies stripped of civil constructs. The map-based works present this phenomenon in stark terms, played out as geopolitical headlines ripped from the paper. The World I and The World II depict worlds run amok by war, disease or possibly famine. Faint pencil outlines suggest physical boundaries that the organisms push to the brink. Teaming and frothing, they have no “place” to go, and so they turn on one another in a game of brinkmanship, drawing boundaries with battlegrounds in an effort to gain the upper hand. The pieces are both eerie and transfixing, haunting yet mesmerizing, and their underlying message could be ignored offhand, if not for the fact that we see similar battles taking place today in regions as remote as Syria and as near as Dallas.
In contrast to the “maps,” Balci’s abstract, circular constructs in the center of the gallery are benign, almost positive in their outlook. Arena IV and Arena VII, for example, present miniature worlds teaming with life. Though not overtly muscular, competition still weighs heavily across the paper in ways more harmonious than murderous. While references to a globe are unavoidable, other interpretations also rise to the surface. These works could also be viewed on a microscopic level, as single-celled amoebae interact symbiotically with one another in ways that ultimately form new species. Gauzy borders on some of the works hint at spherical shapes, as if these fungi are ready to wrestle out of their confinements and literally inhabit the gallery space. This three-dimensionality feels like a natural artistic progression for the artist, underscored by her new Arena Objects series of microbial growth ensconced in two-sided watch glass.
In the end this ability to inspire multiple interpretations makes Arena I through Arena X the stronger works within the exhibition. It seems counter-intuitive, given how the bombastic map-based works provide such a visceral first reaction. Those works, though provocative, are slightly heavy-handed, directing the reactions of the viewer rather than intimating them. Balci’s map-based work presents profound ideas, but they are ideas that will eventually become rote. In contrast the Arena series is as mystical as it is metaphorical, providing more food for thought that stays with you long after the battles end. The ideas laid out in the Arena series will ultimately provide her the most productive path to investigate as her career gathers steam.
Arena is on view through October 31, 2014 at the Honfleur Gallery. For gallery hours click here.
For more information on the artist, visit her website here.