Bianca Hlywa is an artist who fuses beauty with disgust. Her chosen medium is the symbiotic cultures of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) used in fermented foodstuffs such as kombucha. The powerful vinegar odor means that you tend to smell Hlywa’s works well before you can see them. In this case, the stench hits as you descend the staircase to Gossamer Fog’s underground gallery.
Inside, Hlywa’s sculptural installation Thermaloop (all works 2022) mounts a roughly 440-pound SCOBY specimen (grown over five months) onto a webbing substrate, which is submerged within a large rectangular vat of brown liquid. A motorized steel pulley repeatedly hoists the organic mass up out of the far end of the tank, before lowering it gently back in again. In the process, Thermaloop encourages viewers to look at the surface of the organic mass like one would a painting—to trace its complex textures, subtle flesh tones, and lustrous sheen.
An accompanying looped HD video, Orbital Shakes, shows lumps of SCOBY lying limply on a patch of grass, like washed-up jellyfish. Several curious turkeys investigate this strange material. The camera focuses on the tumescent fleshy quiver of the birds’ snoods and caruncles as they peck violently at the organic mass. The only sound is that of passing traffic.
In Hlywa’s work, animals are not cute, landscapes never picturesque or sublime. There is no aesthetic idealization of the natural world, because it is no longer clear what “natural” means. In blurring the organic with the industrial, the domesticated with the feral, these works also refuse to endorse hypercapitalist visions of a post-human future through bio-tech. They are fascinating and utterly gross.