Image Source: Nikita Skuse
By Nikita Skuse | @nikita_skuse
UniSA’s Museum of Discovery (better known as MOD) launched its new exhibition last Friday night, entitled ‘Hedonism’.
Hedonism explores the pursuit of pleasure and asks the question, “do you want to feel great forever?”
Ani Liu, a New York-based research artist, clearly does.
Ani grew up in Chinatown, New York, with parents who lived through tough times and famine in China, instilling in them utilitarian views.
This made it hard for Ani to explain her art to them.
She said they see her work as a hobby, and don’t understand why she is making “decoration” instead of being an “actual scientist”.
However, Ani sees art as a platform for emotional connection.
She has created an exhibit that she hopes will fill people with desire, reduce their stress, and leave them feeling refreshed.
Her work ‘Biophilic Fantasies’ is a collection of plants, both real and fake, displayed on glass shelves amongst a metal, grid-like structure, accompanied by sounds of wind and smells of freshly cut grass.
On first impressions, entering this exhibit feels like walking in to a well-manicured plant store, but after hearing the story behind it, it becomes much more.
Ani went to college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where there was not much more than four hours of sunlight a day in the winter.
She described how she developed seasonal depression because of this, and then became fascinated with ways to artificially improve her mood, since natural sunlight wasn’t an option.
This started with a sunlamp that Ani has now used every morning for the past eight years.
“I thought it was really interesting that this artificial device that mimicked the sun could still get me to produce serotonin and melatonin,” she said.
“So, I started to look at other forms of technology that emulate nature that touch us on this biochemical level.”
Ani’s whole exhibition came out of researching principles of biophilia, which is the idea that humans have an innate tendency to interact or be closely associated with nature.
Being a trained architect, Ani’s research was mainly on an architectural basis.
“Because we’re evolved from being animals, there’s certain natural stimuli that really impact us,” she said.
“So even though we have modern architecture, we still crave certain things.
“For instance, instead of air conditioning blowing at us at a very consistent pace we prefer non-rhythmic sensory stimuli like a breeze.
“And if we are in an office cubicle that is all one, flat shade (colour) our cortisol levels tend to go up, which is a stress hormone, so we would, for instance, prefer wallpaper that looked like leaves.”
Ani became incredibly interested in this idea that fake nature could chemically impact our moods and began to question how much our bodies could actually be fooled.
“I started to think about simulations and real, and what is real,” she said.
“I think we would all agree emotionally that on some philosophical level it is different, but for me, if my body’s making the same chemicals that make me feel the same ways it made me wonder, what is the difference?”
That was Ani’s aim with ‘Biophilic Fantasies’: to have people question which plants are fake and which are real, but to still feel the positive effects of them, despite their authenticity.
“I was hoping that a visitor would feel the impacts of biophilia, like they would actually have their cortisol levels lessened and have that kind of refreshing feeling of being with natural stimuli, but to clearly recognise that it is pretty artificial as well,” she said.
While researching for this exhibit, Ani spoke with someone who studies ecology and was interested to hear him explain that what we as humans think of as nature is not actually natural.
“Our notions of plantings are very gardened and very regular, and there’s very little wilderness that exists on earth that is completely untouched by humans,” she said.
She explains that part of the exhibition is about questioning our relationship to nature itself, especially when we talk about a future where resources are dwindling.
During a time where climate change is such a topical issue, it was interesting that Ani noted that for many people it is much more convenient to have fake plants than real ones, but how there is an environmental impact that comes with this.
“I definitely have friends who are like, ‘I don’t have time to care for plants, so why not have a plastic plant?’ and I’m like ‘well the carbon footprint of producing a plastic plant in China and then shipping it to you is quite bad’,” she said.
She had the pleasure of witnessing the public’s reactions to her work at the ‘Hedonism’ launch party, and noticed that some people were surprisingly interested in the price of the plants.
“Someone pointed at that plant (one of the larger plants featured in the exhibit) and said ‘oh my god! That’s at least a $300 plant!’” she said.
“I thought that was a really interesting thing to dwell on, whereas I feel like maybe in some future, someone could walk up and be like ‘oh my god! That’s clearly plastic! The carbon footprint of that is astronomical and I can’t believe that artist used this, it’s so unethical!’”.
Ani is using her platform as an artist to make people think more deeply about nature, which is more important now than ever.
She’s created an opportunity for audiences to think about how nature affects them, as well as how they affect nature.
“I feel like art is a nice experimental playground to talk about these things,” she said.
“It’s another domain to talk about it, in which we’re like, who do we want to be and what do we want our future to be like?
“I think this exhibition is really good for asking those questions.”
Ani’s ‘Biophilic Fantasies’ – among an array of other pleasure-inducing exhibits – can be found at MOD along North Terrace, opposite UniSA’s City West campus.
You can also catch the ‘Hedonism’ exhibition now until November.