At James Oliver Gallery, there is presently a rather impressive exhibit by sculptor, installation and performance artist, and Bucknell University professor Joe Meiser. The show is called “INFLUX” and it features a number of large-scale skull sculptures, some smaller constructions, photos and videos.
Stealing the show are Meiser’s massive “Hominid and Simian Souls” series. They are massive representations of skulls from along the tree of human and primate evolution. The carved foam skulls are much larger than the average human head and appear to have fallen from the bodies of some truly giant creatures. One of the pieces appears to be fully human – or at least as close to human as Meiser was willing to get – and even the rest bring us face-to-skull with some of our distant pre-human ancestors. This act of homage to our collective past is very honest and emotionally moving. The images act almost as religious relics or ancestor worship for anyone who enters the space, because regardless of individual beliefs, everyone shares this common history.
The skulls are arranged in pairs. On the ground there is a solid, fully formed representation, while mounted above each one, and seeming to float, is a twisted, warped version. The top, floating sculpture is apparently the soul of the more grounded image below. These pairs bring to mind life after death and raise powerful questions that humans have been grappling with for probably as long as these evolutionary jaunts. If humans do have spirits beyond their physical forms, has it always been this way? When exactly did humans cease to be animals? Are we still animals? Do primates and our close evolutionary cousins also possess this nebulous spark of sentience? Meiser poses the heavy-hitting questions in a wordless display of artistic prowess while simultaneously toeing a line that will make some people extremely uneasy.
A similarly toed line is Meiser’s series of robotic images. The character is of course Johnny5 from the 1980s films “Short Circuit.” In these images, the humanoid robot Johnny5 is depicted going through a number of existential crises himself. He asks many of the same questions as we ask ourselves looking at primates, except with an extra degree of separation. Is artificial intelligence real intelligence? What exactly makes a thinking being a human and what does this designation even mean?
Speaking of artificial intelligence, one of Meiser’s videos “Simon and Simian” loops footage of a man in a gorilla costume playing the game Simon. The lights colored lights flash and the tones of the game buzz as the gorilla-man tries to keep up. Ultimately, every time he loses. This is both philosophically relevant along the lines of ‘no one makes it out alive.’ Everyone eventually has a game over in life and this video again raises questions about the distinction of human intelligence.
Mesier also has a pair of non-skull sculptures to round out the show. One is a locked chest which looks like it assembled from bone fragments. Inside this box is a machine intended to produce Theta brainwaves often associated with meditation and transcendence. Since there is a real risk of this machine causing seizures in some individuals, it is sealed indefinitely, lending a degree of credibility to the myth of Pandora’s Box. Last but not least is a tongue-in-cheek carved, wooden sculpture of Stephen Hawking ascending into heaven as the Biblical Elijah. The renowned physicist and atheist obviously does not expect such an end, so this sculpture is in many ways an amusingly fitting tribute.
Joe Meiser’s show asks big questions and doesn’t hold back. It is visually stunning and philosophically challenging. It’s definitely worth a look and some time to ponder. James Oliver Gallery will have “INFLUX” on display through August 4th. Don’t forget your copy of Richard Dawkins.