This is one of the essays I wrote as part of my final major project whilst studying at the Royal College of Art.
It is being published in the second edition of Ossian, an art and literature magazine, out November 2019.
I also performed the essay at Urbanek, London on October 12, 2019 during an afternoon of performances accompanying Part of a Distant Now, an exhibition by Marie Thams.
In January 2015, artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen presented a new work in Berlin entitled Sterile. The project began six years earlier and eventually came to fruition when the duo commissioned Professor Etsuro Yamaha to produce forty-five goldfish in his laboratory in Hokkaido, Japan. The goldfish, genetically modified to lack reproductive organs, were to be sold as individual editions of works of art. To further Cohen and Balen’s ambition to remove any evolutionary traits that were associated with reproduction and attracting a mate, the goldfish were bred to be albino. Albinism is a rare genetic condition affecting all vertebrates, characterised by a lack of pigmentation in hair, eyes, skin, scales, feathers and cuticles. In humans, the condition often causes impaired vision and ultra sensitivity to light resulting in a greater susceptibility to skin cancers. Popular superstitions in parts of Eastern Africa regard those born with albinism as sorcerers or demons. Hunting albinos for their body parts is said to bring good fortune to Others, a complete set of body parts costing up to seventy-five thousand dollars on the black market. Whilst protection from hands of greed have failed, numerous local and international charities, along with filmmakers, have been drawing attention to the persecution of albinos, engendering a significant decrease in the murder rate. In 2014, the Tanzanian government made crimes against those with albinism punishable by death. Later in 2015, two hundred and twenty-five Tanzanian witch-doctors were arrested on charges of murdering albino adults and children.
Sterile fuses technical application with organic matter, rendering the fish as a biological project ‘free from the complex demands of nature,’ as Balen and Cohen write. The sterile fish are engineered to be albino, another step to ‘remove any evolutionary traits associated with reproduction and attracting a mate,’ says Revital Cohen. From the laboratory in Japan, the fish enter the system of the art market where they are shipped, displayed, exhibited, stored and finally undergo a post-mortem process of freeze drying, following a strict protocol created specially by a biotech lab.
Cohen and Balen were intrigued by the tradition of breeding goldfish in Japan, a pursuit which first began in China around 800 BC for the pleasure of the emperor’s courtiers who revered yellow as an Imperial colour and sought it in the breeding of carp. Certainly introduced via close exchanges with China, the practice in Japan harks back to the Edo period from 1603 to 1868. During this time a very precise dancing with nature, exacted through careful measures of control. became an art form applied to floriculture of all sorts, including bonsai plants, and was also applied to goldfish. Similar design criteria were applied to the aesthetic formation of fish and plants alike, demonstrated by the exacting controls applied to their growth. A guiding intention behind this design criteria was for bonsai and fish to look far removed from their original form. Bonsai (the word itself meaning deformity) reached a peak of refinement during the Edo period, with a desire to greatly reduce the form of the plant so it would retain only its essential elements. In turn, the 14 goldfish was bred to look as far away from its ancestral carp as possible. In contemporary Japan this aesthetic criteria is still a key influence on the creations of professional breeders, who are judged at annual goldfish competitions.
In September 1908, Shinnosuke Matsubara, Director of the Imperial Fisheries Institute of Japan, presented a paper at the Fourth International Fishery Congress held in Washington, U.S.A, entitled Goldfish and their Culture in Japan. As well as offering in-depth technical advice, the paper also described the cultural forces which had influenced the art of breeding:“To have the best coloration, it is essential that both the belly and back should be well dappled and the tail vermillion coloured. In former times when the goldfish were kept in a china basin to be looked at from above only, those having the finest dapples on the back were most highly appreciated. Nowadays however, the fish are kept in a glass tank to be viewed from the sides, hence the necessity of having fine dapples on the sides and downwards.”
The significance of this closely imbricated relationship of material to manifestation—that is, the aerial perspective that came to determine the shape of the animal—is noted by Cohen and Balen as rendering the creature two dimensional in essence. This notion of a living creature being relegated to two dimensionality is a crucial point, in that the fish undergoes a literal, that is physical, transformation through successive breeding which alters its bodily form. The fish is of course a three dimensional being, but significantly, its re-conceptualisation as a two dimensional entity is made more than metaphorical by the practices of breeding.
“‘Ranchu’ otherwise called ‘Maruko’ (round fish) – The body of this variety is short and rounded, its tail and broad head also short. It has no dorsal fin. The head [...] in two or three years develops all over it a number of protuberances, like the achenia of a strawberry. In this state it is called ‘shishigashira’ (lion-headed) ranchu. The most popular breed is ranchu which is highly prized by goldfish lovers and attracts a great deal of attention among breeders who take pride in producing the best of this variety. Owing to the fact this variety has a globular body, a short protuberant abdomen, and a short caudal fin, it can hardly swim, and is usually seen in an erect position with the head downwards.”
This languid, finless, ever popular variety are best viewed from above. Ranchu were bred to depict the mythical Chinese lion-dog, Shishi, which Cohen and Balen name an imaginary monster, describing the practice of breeding as “tying together semi-conflicting desires derived from techno-fantasies and cultural conservation.” Techno-fantasies muddy the stagnant waterways of nature versus culture dualisms; the ‘natural’ is forged by way of figmentary fancies and the culture of breeding intertwines with other cultural phenomena; a Shubunkin goldfish is so-called because of its bright red and blue colour, similar to that of a kimono, and may be bred to further enhance the resemblance, where, for instance, a fin may be tapered to curve like the flowing hem of a kimono.
What to make of the of the semi-conflicting desires Cohen and Balen write of? Perhaps it is the manner of objectification the fish undergo; all considerations for the fish are bound to their supply and demand. The tradition of breeding goldfish as objects of pure aestheticization is embedded within systems: biological transformations, cultural formations and relational exchanges the fish encounter—making their way from breeder to seller, often exchanging hands through the yakuza—organized crime syndicates originating in Japan—who use the transactions for money laundering. Professor Irit Rogoff presents the idea of smuggling as an operational device to bring new subjects into the world. Rejecting it as an illustrative tool (to think of say the way an artwork travels), Rogoff works with the principles of smuggling as “a form of surreptitious transfer, of clandestine transfer from one realm into another [...] as a principle of movement, fluidity and dissemination [...] smuggling does not work to retrace the old lines of existing divisions – but glides along them .” By layering the creatures with yet another set of biological transformations, that is sterility and albinism, the artists serve to embroil them into an altogether different realm—that is, systems of supply and demand within the art world.