2.  “Memory alloy in a green square”. Harriet Biffminns (S) 2020. Installation, variable dimensions, Galerie Jarrilie, Paris 75005. View by socially distanced appointment only.


Most people probably see a new artwork before being aware of its title. Old, well known works are often merely their title before they are seen, in their original form at least. The Mona Lisa has been written about, sung about, mentioned, parodied and copied just as much as viewed. Those braving the Virus and its police to visit the Galerie Jarrilie in Paris's now sadly deserted rue des Pauv'cons would do well to note the title of its only exhibit before entering Harriet Biffminns’ show. What might it conjure up? Someone sitting in a green square, perhaps in Paris, reminiscing? But what about the 'alloy'? Ah yes: ‘memory alloy’. Nickel/titanium. And there on a white plinth is a video camera attached to a microscope. Science then, not quiet contemplation, and it is this jolt from title to artwork, from, as we shall see, nature to artefact, that is integral to the installation, or so the Swedish artist claims.

The camera, showing us what the microscope sees, is connected wirelessly to a video projector. But the enlarged image is projected onto a wall hidden behind a curtain. In fact the image only appears - the beamer is only on - when the curtain is laboriously pulled open by a train of pulleys. This would merely be a trick to add to the image an aura of specialness, its non-reproduction pace Walter Benjamin, were it not for the fact that the image is so intriguing - whether it is (merely?) art or (merely?) science is another matter.

The emptiness of the gallery under present Covid-19 lockdown conditions is certainly a perfect context (your reviewer attended the vernissage, one day before the clampdown on leaving one's home). If you look under the microscope, with difficulty since the plinth is protected by a cordon sanitaire complete with horned virus warning signs, you see only a small metal box with a square hole in it. The only light is projected from green LEDs surrounding the microscope lens.

Behind the curtain is uncertainty. There is nothing to see (but how do we know?) before the silk ropes are tugged and it opens, theatrically. Then: a green square of light, perhaps a metre across. And in the centre a wire-frame diagram of the Coronavirus. But no, not a diagram. It's actually a minuscule wire model, surely too small to have been assembled by hand. And it is breathing, expanding, contracting, arrhythmically, as if unable to respire without assistance. (A gallery note explains that the structure is made from filaments of NiTiNol alloy, which are initially relaxed but under a slight temperature rise ‘remember’ their intended form. A microprocessor controls a tiny current passing through the structure itself, whose resistance causes the warmth, which expands the structure, decreasing the resistance, lowering the temperature, which relaxes the structure... and so on.)

Gaze long enough and you will see it cough, splutter, choke... and I do not place those words in quotes because it is not sentimental anthropomorphism to see it as living. The actual, real virus has a pleomorphic form and a variable size of 60 to 140 nanometres. We don't know how large this structure is but one would guess no larger than a few millimetres and it is this apparent identiy of scale (not true, but that's our perception) that makes it almost hyperreal. For the virus is inhaling with difficulty. Heaving. Gasping sometimes. As if it has caught a cold, or far worse.

Should we feel protective towards it? That would be absurd. Yet any other reaction seems... almost inhuman. Is it dying, or will it continue to live? A virus isn't really alive anyway, surely. In fact this piece seems more alive than the virus, certainly more concrete. Accidentally on purpose, a large hammer lies on a shelf near the door, as if left there after the installation. It could theoretically be used to destroy, to ‘kill’, the virus. But would we? And what would we be destroying? Art, science, a disease? Or something far more virtual?


©2020 by Brian Reffin Smith