XenoEstrogens, installation view in Looks at the ICA, London, 2015.
Photography by Mark Blower.
In her new series Xenoestrogens, Juliette Bonneviot continues her investigations into the nexus between ecology and gender by engaging with the materiality of things through a focused practice. She makes a speculative exploration of the hidden life and power of the chemical compound xenoestrogen (meaning: foreign estrogen), which looks like and mimics estrogen (or oestrogen).
The exhibition consists of paintings Bonneviot made using her collection of different compounds containing types of xenoestrogens. She begins with the core – the chemical xenoestrogen as a material – and spirals outward into many of its biological, cultural and philosophical implications.
In Bonneviot’s thinking, matter is powerful, active and alive. It is dispersive and it moves constantly. Xenoestrogens are a perfectly concentrated example of this movement. Many are deeply disruptive to living systems, having been linked to birth defects, cancerous growth, hormonal disruption, and abnormalities in animal and human reproductive health.
Xenoestrogens can be organic, or synthetic, or mineral. Synthetic xenoestrogens are perhaps the most infamous, found in birth control pills, silicones, oils and lacquers, coolants and insulating fluids, BPA and pesticides, detergents and plasticizers, linens, lotions, shampoos, beverage cans and lacquers. Organic xenoestrogens are found in plant, animal and human life, often performing valuable biological functions, like curbing population growth.
Bonneviot’s process is studied; she gathers, catalogs, archives and arranges her compounds meticulously. In the process of collecting, Bonneviot drew on philosopher Jane Bennett’s description of hoarding as an intentional kind of work, emerging from one’s own attuned orientation to thing-life.
For these paintings, Bonneviot used a variety of xenoestrogens, including: metalloestrogens, which predate oestrogens (and are sourced from aluminum, lead, copper, chrome, antimony, cadmium); phytoestrogens from plants, (extracted from soy and sesame seeds and flax plants); mycoestrogens (pulled from zearalenone, a fungi in grains); and other artificial xenoestrogens (siphoned from silicone, phthalates, BPA, epoxy resins, additives, aspirin and of course, the pill).
The paintings’ minimalism belies their procedural complexity. They involved experimentation with both traditional and unorthodox materials to find the right range of colors, and the right pairings of surfaces with binders. Her mixtures reveal vivid, saturated pigment groups: reds, yellows, blues, earth-colors and greys. (Red, for example, is sourced from silicone rubber, copper, the cadmium pigments in architectural paints and E127 Erythrosine B, a food coloring).
Testing their resistance and flexibility as mediums, she created a linen fabric support with wood floor lacquers to bind, a support of epoxy resins to bind atop PVC, and, in a final iteration, silicone as both binder and surface.
Natural and industrial production intersect on the canvas; the synthetic is mixed in with mineral and organic. Easy binaries and divisions are muddied, as a result. In this flow from ancient organic compounds into the modern and artificial, the viewer is forced to consider a wide arc of time – from the pre-mammalian era, to the future, in which our offspring will be shaped by chemical actants loose in the world now.
In sourcing these xenohormones from a range of organic and synthetic sources, Bonneviot gestures strongly at the “interstitial field of non-personal, ahuman forces, flows, tendencies and trajectories” that define life, as Bennett writes in her seminal text, Vibrant Matter. The materiality and artistry of xenohormones as they both impress and express is one aspect of Bennett’s “agency of assemblages,” or the “working whole made up, variously, of somatic, technological, cultural, and atmospheric elements.”
We’re asked to consider the world from the perspective of the chemical itself – where it was birthed, where it journeyed, and in what form it entered the bloodstream, the water and the technological environment. We are also asked to think on environmental contamination, as volatile xenoestrogens lurk, resilient, in treatment plant runoff and pesticides and waste, eroding hormonal and ecological balance.
Chemicals are always present before us as actants, though not always detectable to the naked eye. They transform our human and animal bodies into spaces of great drama. We’re just a few of many assemblages being wrought and remade in a newly synthetic world.
Nora N. Khan