Upon walking into Christine Chin’s “Sentient Kitchen” installation in Alfred State College’s Llewellyn gallery, I was met with the sight of numerous framed images of human anatomy, removed from the context of the body and converted to serve utilitarian functions as classical kitchen tools. The first impression that struck me was one of unease. How disturbing these pieces of flesh were, crafted naturally over eons to perfection in their specific roles, only to be butchered and moulded down to a function of relative inconsequence, aloof from the humans they may be cut from! When I observed more closely, however, I became fascinated by them. Though the purpose of each piece was singular, are those organs not still so limited when they remain attached to a body? If the tools we craft are an extension of ourselves, is crafting the tools directly from our own biological material redundant or ingenious?
I was fortunate to visit the installation in time to hear the artist talk about her work. Her inspiration, as she phrased it, was the growing convergence between technology and biology. “As the machines that assist our lives become smarter and more architecturally complex,” she says, “they borrow increasingly from the biological realm.” Chin used this observation to create a “what-if” scenario, in which she was tasked with advertising a line of kitchen products created with the sensitivity of human organs. By examining the strengths – and weaknesses – of our bodies, she created objects which could experience their roles as we experience the results of their work. On one side, she created objects like the “breast bottles,” grafting real human nipples onto baby bottles to provide the most natural possible surrogate milking experience. In contrast, she created such things as the “nostril mill,” peppercorn mill housed in a sinus cavity to be dispensed, presumably, by causing a sneezing reaction in the noses at its base. Interestingly, it makes use of a natural reaction that would be undesirable to experience personally in a helpful way. In an interview with Wired.co.uk, Chin said she “chose to work with the ‘human’ hybrid to directly implicate us as human beings into the work, since one of the larger moral and philosophical questions is the question of how much we want to manipulate our own genetic heritage.”
The pieces themselves are all well-crafted. The execution of Chin’s imagery showcases her abilities as a photographer and editor, as well as her skills in sculpture and puppetry. She meticulously created a physical sculpture of each object so that she may manipulate it physically. The odd puppetry and sporadic motion of the objects produces a slightly creepy effect, and it reminds the viewer that these machines are not only organic, but alive. The artist presented them in cleanly, as though they were being advertised to potential customers. Her goal was to make such disturbing things as a milk jug made of breast flesh into desirable commodities, which she approached, somewhat successfully, by placing them in a non-threatening environment.
Throughout Chin’s lecture, I had been pondering the ethical nature of the display. Luckily, I had the opportunity to interview her myself about whether or not she created the gallery with the ethics of engineering sentience in mind. Did she believe the pieces enjoyed what they were? Limited on their senses, did they experience the desire to know more about the world around them? Do the teacups with ears listen to you, make judgements on you based on what you tell them? Does the sugar jar with the eyeball inside the lid prefer staring around the room while open to seeing only the sugar beneath it when closed?
She considered the question before responding, and basically told me that perhaps some are content with their lot in life, while others are not. I wonder now if it’s really any different for a full human being.
1. Chin, Christine. “Sentient Kitchen.” Artist talk, Sentient Kitchen installation at the Llewellyn Gallery, Alfred State College, Alfred, NY, October 23, 2014.
2. “SENTIENT KITCHEN,” Sentient Kitchen Artist Statement, accessed December 4, 2014, http://people.hws.edu/chin/ChristineChinwebsite/SentientKitchen/statement.html.
3. Olivia Solon, “Artist designs kitchen utensils to look like fleshy nipples, tongues and noses,” Wired, January 23, 2013, accessed December 4, 2012, http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-01/23/artist-sentient-kitchen.