Ashley Bickerton’s Mitochondrial Eve Series

Published May 4, 2014 by Gajah Gallery

Ashley Bickerton is an American visual artist based in Bali and self-described “dancing poodle for the one per cent”. I spoke to him in Jogjakarta this year whilst he was in the last stages of finishing his’ Mitochondrial Eve/Viral Mother series, which was exhibited by Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York.


Ashley Bickerton photographed at his studio in Bali by Bobby Fisher, 2011

From the beginning of his career Bickerton has challenged traditional art forms. In the early 80’s he embarked on what has become a career-long process of experimenting with the hybridization of forms, materials and methods that blur boundaries between painting, sculpture and photography and the artwork as commodity.

He oscillates between abstraction and figuration, but always with a conceptual base, and is increasingly exploring the differences between representation in western and non-western cultures.

Bickerton worked with Yogya Art Lab (YAL) for a period of over 12 months to develop his’ Mitochondrial Eve/Viral Mother works, derived from models he created from organic materials and a series which one colleague described as “some of the more important contemporary sculpture produced in the next 10 years”.

When the lab first saw the prototypes for the pieces, it appeared as some of the most liveliest art they had ever seen. As art Technition Hungerford explained: “touching these works in the process of creating them, has also been part of a process of realising how important they are in the world of contemporary visual sculpture. I believed when I first saw the prototypes for the works, that if we could even get close to what they looked like in their conceptual state, then the sculpture community will be in awe”.

In the beginning, the intention for these sculptures was not for the creation of individual artworks per se as Bickerton explains, “they things had been sitting in my studio. They were part of a process where I’ve attempted to find some perfect triangulation between painting, sculpture and photography. These heads were the sculptural part, and were really built just as part of a process towards another end, pieces you might get in a performance, props in a sense”.

The “Heads”, as he called them, were composed with organic materials and were in a state of decay, but everyone including respected friends and colleagues who passed by his studio continuously attempted to convince him to preserve the decaying works:

“The lemons were rotting, the flowers were wilted, butterflies with broken wings. But still everyone was like ‘you’ve got to make these things’. And I kept hearing it again and again from all sorts of people. But I didn’t really know how to build them. I knew how to make the parts I made but all the little bits were made of so many things that were temporal and going to die or rot away”.

Bickerton’s art is known for its’ cynical representations of life on the Island of Bali, from the excesses expats suffering midlife crises, to an island losing it’s traditional beauty to the perils of capitalism and rapid development. But these works  are somewhat of a departure from the harshness of the themes of previous works, representing what he described as “the mitochondrial eve, the mitochondrion DNA passed from mother to child. But not literally. It’s a figure more felt than reasoned”.

In light of matters felt, Bickerton was surprised throughout the process of creating the Mitochondrial Eve figures by the many emotional responses he received, with several friends and colleagues commenting on the emotions and spiritual intensity coming out of “the heads”. He understands where these responses were coming from, but he analogises the spirit or “spiritualisms” coming from the works as probably closer to the reflection of an experience much more intimate, “a spiritualism that comes from the turmultuousness of a life lived outside the well trodden paths of crass, consumerist spiritualisms”, which made sense looking at the works close up.  As he explained:

“You could analogise it to a path that could come out of something closer to Lou Reed floating around on his way to harlem to buy his next hit, rather than something of the Eat Pray Love position. It comes from more of an anti-spiritualist position, in the sense of the way that spiritualism is crunched in popular culture today. Some of the sculptures could look like what they might have ben at the moment of inception where our direct ancestor was born. At that direct point, that one moment. But, I don’t want to put the weight of too much meaning onto them. Just leave the thoughts round it sort of free flowing. not too hard and fast”.

This reminded me of an explanation he shared with Kisa Lala at The Huffington Post about the suffocation of meaning that occurs once the weight of interpretation is applied too heavily to art, when it becomes too much of a science:

“It’s like an Edith Piaf song – and she’s wailing away and it’s beautiful and mysterious and evocative, and suddenly you go online and try to translate it into English, and it’s like, ooh baby yeah … and you go, oh god… I don’t want to know what things mean. I don’t want to know what my own work means. If it gets nailed down in fluourescent lights on a white formica slab in the lab, it’s no longer art, it’s science. Art has to somehow flitter in the half-light, in a sort of phantasm, just out of reach.”

Born in Barbados, Bickerton was raised in Hawaii and grew up in several locales as a child through his father’s professional travels as a linguist. He made a name for himself in Manhattan in the 1980s as one of the Neo-Geo group of artists and now calls Bali home, where he has been living for the past 18 years. 

Gajah Gallery in Singapore will hold a solo exhibition of new works from 26 April to 25 May 2014 as the artist returns to the medium of painting to create provocative works that comment on his two-decade’s experience of life in Bali.

We Have Banksy …NOW WHAT?

Banksy wall, courtesy IB Times
A Banksy wall, courtesy IB Times

Original Article published April 1, 2014 on Sassmouth

How can you criticise human rights activism? It’s kinda like kicking a puppy, isn’t it? But I feel compelled to talk about activism critically, after reading this piece written by Manus Island whistleblower Liz Thompson.* In it she articulates why she recently declined a profile speaking gig at refugee support rally; and her concern about “lack of self-reflection on the amount of space taken up by white people” in the “refugee movement” which is now dominated by white faces.

The revelations Thompson made about the situation at Manus Island were obviously important, but her refusal to hog the spotlight at the expense of those directly affected by the policy is remarkably rare, and that this should be the case is something we should be talking about.

Thompson was criticised by many for the points she made in the piece –  her discomfort at the ‘”refugee movement’s” celebration of her as a whistleblower, and the need for those in the movement to examine their privilege. But this is an increasingly uncommon attitude in the world of activism: humility and a focus on what it is that a particular “movement” is trying to achieve. So, I’d like to add to this conversation, and talk a bit about ego and Personal Branding, which is now so pervasive in activism today. And I think we need to talk about this, because ultimately this endemic narcissism really is shutting down the ability of genuine groups to effectively orgnaise.

At its very core, activism is about social and political change. History’s greatest activists have focused on the issues, not themselves. But these days I find it hard to ascertain the  motives of activists. Are they working towards the achievement of social change, or towards the enhancement of their LinkedIn or twitter profiles? Too often it seems the ingredients for activism are 80% narcissism, 20% organising skill, ethics and the rest. It’s more about the activist – their good deeds and heroicisms, and promoting said heroicisms on behalf of the organisation they represent.

Damn, this really does feel as terrible as kicking a puppy, really, but it needs to be said. Speaking out against human rights abuses cannot be a get out of jail of free card for your own indiscretions. And solidarity cannot be absolute, especially when it allows bad-faith to infiltrate and compromise objectives. That it has become so difficult to distinguish between activists working towards social change, and those using particular issues as a professional branding opportunities is extremely problematic  –  and we need to deal with it.

I live in Jakarta, Indonesia. There is a thriving cohort of activist types here, and  regularly hear tossers refer to “human rights being their thing”, being “largely interested in gender issues”, “environmental something or other”, blah blah blah [insert one of the innumerable things the world is worried about] being “their thing!” I’m now thirty and have only been around the activist community for ten years or so, and this shift has crept up on us somewhere in the last decade. No doubt it was a thing before this, but it now appears to be the dominant trend.

So, let’s get things straight. A plight is not a project. Human and societal failings are not areas of expertise to develop as your “thing”. A tragedy like that of the shooting death of a young on Manus Island is NOT a political or personal branding opportunity nor should it ever be.

This crap is happening at the personal level, but it also permeates organisations, campaigns and political processes. I witnessed with unease, the launch of the #withSyria campaign featuring the massive persona and artistic imagery of Bansky – a privileged (probably) white male. So loud is Banksy, and the calls to “join Banksy” that the  #withSyria campaign is bereft of a genuine Syrian voice, and completely smothers the dedicated and often dangerous work of Syrian activists.

The cultivation of narcissism has slowly but surely crept into activist movements over a number of years, until here we are, dominated by privileged white noise. So what is going on? I suspect it probably does have something to do with the online profiling thing, and the feedback loop thing that academics and psychologists talk about (just bear with me here).

Existing in the online world has necessitated the cultivation of online presence and branding of our personas. And it seems, everybody who wants to be a fucking hero these days can and will be. The instant affirmation of “likes” and clicks has become a breeding ground for narcissists. We are stuck in feedback loop in which such attention-seeking behaviors are rewarded with online flattery and attention –  thus perpetuating the cycle. Witness the selfie culture now adopted by activists: endless posts about their latest campaigns, and snaps with the “poor people” they claim to represent are now instantly rewarded by other chumps part of the same selfish movement. A system of perpetual buddy-praise  – and we are conflating these virtual pats on the back with purpose and efficacy.

Amid all  the energy being focused on the online sphere and all that fucken hot air and naval gazing that comes with it – it seems there are really very few examples of provocative and actually effective campaigning around today. There are campaigns, sure. But effective? As in, contributes in a measurable and meaningful way? We are #standingwithsyria –  but how will this influence the political climate, the arms deals, how will it end the tyranny of vested interests and give rise to a peaceful inclusive Syrian future? We have Banksy…now what?

There needs to be a comprehensive reassessment about the goals of so-caled “activists,” and those engaged in the selfie social movements need to engage in som hard consideration about the efficacy of their activism. Because from where I’m sitting, it seems like a LOT of the efforts of the past few years have been bloody useless. So, I guess what I’m saying is that when activist involvement causes confusion of motive, gives rise to fragmentation, or if it actually achieves very little of the intended social or political change – there needs to be a point at which activists take a big step back (and I’m looking at you privileged white folks here, but bad-faith comes in many guises). We need to have a long hard think, and to know when to sit the fuck down – because surprising as it may seem, at the end of the day it’s not actually about us, or the organisations we represent. If we want genuine social, political and economic change as profound as we claim – we need a fucking shake-up.

-Kate Grealy, @kategrealy

*A brief recap for those who don’t know: Liz Thompson was a contracted migration agent, and was sent to Manus Island to process asylum seeker claims. Thompson decided to blow the lid on the farce of a “processing” system currently in place. In her allegations she claimed that “processing” simply involves paying contractors to provide asylum seekers with vague allusions to resettlement, while omitting the detail that resettlement is in actuality an impossibility with things being as they are. – Ed.

 Original Article “We Have Banksy, Now What?” on Sassmouth Monthly Smart Arsed Feminist Reader