COLD SLEEP by STINE DEJA at TRANEN [from 20210421 to 20210718]

[Photos: David Stjernholm]

Right now, approximately 400 human bodies are frozen at -196 degrees Celsius in America and Russia. They are dead – legally speaking. The hope is to one day defrost and resuscitate them. The procedure is controversial. Nonetheless, cryopreservation, i.e. preserving people at extreme temperatures below zero, is an area marked by growth. The condition is sometimes referred to as ‘cold sleep’, which is also the title of Stine Deja’s first solo show in Denmark at Tranen.

The exhibition is an installation of kinetic sculpture and animation. Cryopreserved bodies in thermal, yellow suits are suspended in big, circular aluminium structures revolving around their own axis on small islands in a desert landscape. In the sand lie craters where artificially inseminated cells divide. A barren desert landscape is usually seen as lifeless and abstract. In Deja’s version it becomes a place for being before or after human life, or, as the artist has it, “a population in another dimension.”

The thermal silhouettes recall a crime scene where chalk drawings outline the final position of the deceased. However, the islands in the exhibition are not the scene of a crime. In Deja’s speculative future scenario the figures are most likely the only survivors on our devastated planet. The scenario is surreal – like a mirage – and springs from the artist’s research into the most established cryopreservation company, Alcor, who freeze and preserve human bodies in the middle of Arizona’s hot, red desert. “A person who can be resuscitated is not dead,” explains the company dubbed Life Extension Foundation. A small opening at the head of the body suits exposes eyes that alternately open and close as if blinking in slow motion. The dead are maybe rather drowsy. The crack gives an insight into what is happening on the other side – or maybe what is not happening. Deja compares the scenario to a waiting room, where you don’t know exactly what you are waiting for and when, as the patient doesn’t know when or if the desired biotechnological breakthrough will occur. The suspended figures revolve in a disorientated fashion around themselves in a loop without any direction – like astronauts in training facilities who exercise their ability to float in space without gravity. Maybe immortality demands a completely different understanding not just of life and death, but also of space and time.

The dream of eternal life is at least as old as the approximately 4000-year-old epic Gilgamesh, also hailed as the first major work of literature. However, over time, the dream outgrows religions, mythology and art in order to haunt modern science. In the age of Enlightenment, where reason asserts itself at the expense of all kinds of obscurantism, death is revisited in light of progress. French and English thinkers discuss whether the increase in average life expectancy will lead to immortality further down the paths of science and technology. In recent years, Silicon Valley’s most successful billionaires such as Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have bet a fortune on this biotechnological front. Research in the nature of life has started bearing fruit in adjacent areas of cryopreservation. 10.000-year-old worms caught in Siberia’s permafrost have been brought back to life. Microscopic tardigrades capable of surviving in extreme environments, maybe even on the moon, are now believed to be close to immortal. The jellyfish Turritposis dohrnii appears to become younger and younger unlike other known organisms that simply grow older and older.

Deja’s focus is on an older scientific breakthrough. When IVF treatment and so-called test tube babies were introduced half a century ago, it was highly controversial as well. Science was led astray, some believed. Humans shouldn’t manipulate creation. What was once seen as unnatural is today viewed as part of human nature. Today, IVF is almost a basic human right. One out of ten babies born in Denmark is conceived by artificial insemination. Given the exponential decline in sperm quality worldwide, freezing and thawing eggs and semen is less viewed with horror, and more as a necessity. To Deja, it is an example of how quickly what was once science fiction can become reality. Work on controlling cell divisions that produce an embryo is, however, incomparable to the complexity of the cryopreservation of all of the organs of a human body. No one knows whether projects such as Alcor’s will ever succeed, but many predict that technoscience will continue accelerating in unpredictable ways.

The exhibition is a meditation on progress that may not simply catapult humanity into the future, but also suspend what we understand by time as such. In Cold Sleep, eternal life is not only presented as a dream for the living, but also as a dream for the dead.

[Text: Toke Lykkeberg]

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