art and cellular revision

In the studio of Leslie Iwai. Photo: L. Harper

In the studio of Leslie Iwai. Photo: L. Harper

Trained in mathematics, science and architecture, Leslie Iwai's artistic practice is one that explores the underlying design and geometry found within diverse materials, from concrete to feathers, fibers to wax. Her conceptually based artwork forms as she explores associations found through research, discussion, meditation, metaphor and observation. Recently, Iwai pursued the mystery of “cytofission,” an alternate form of cellular division, newly observed in human cells by Dr. Mark Burkard from the UW Carbone Cancer Center. 

Developed through a series of conversations with Dr. Burkard, Iwai's art identifies and expands upon themes related to cytofission in a body of work that includes sculpture, text, drawing and novel photographic processes. Dr. Burkard's discovery shows us how resilient human cells find a substitute way to recover genetic integrity as a kind of fail-safe when errors in cellular division occur. Iwai conceptually connects our intimate human narratives of separation, journey and inheritance to this cellular survival story.

In her work for Daughter CellsInheritance, Separation and Survival, Leslie Iwai examines the concept of allotted inheritance with the vernacular imagery of science and a survival narrative of resilience. Work constructed with found architectural elements, blown eggshells, red string, text, crochet and resin create an enlarged sculptural rendering of the cell's cytoskeleton-stretched and morphed during the process of cytofission-and the replicated progeny contained within it. Iwai highlights a physical segregation that is belied by mirrored images and the connection of bloodline, reminding us that even in division we maintain our attachments. Her photographic series relays this theme, with stark images of two sisters, alike but not identical, connected and yet at the same time divided by their DNA.

I had an opportunity to visit Iwai in her studio and discuss her practice. For Daughter Cells, Iwai considers her personal fissions, explaining, "A clean slate is not what I want." In fact we never have a clean slate, no matter what form our separation takes. We always take something with us-if not by choice, then by inheritance. Iwai's exploration of that which we inherit and that we choose to take with us, led her to the use of gendered materials. Crochet, embroidery hoops and sawhorses speak to the passage of time, of the domestic and traditional-passed to us from generations before. Lace fragments between a microscope slide, labeled as an attribute, invites us to look closely at what is given to us. From the Matrix of My Mother, a representation of mitochondrial DNA contained within embroidery hoops, suggests Iwai's maternal links and the biology of inherited traditions.  Sawhorses retrieved from her family home are used to create rubbings, which are then transferred and enlarged to become multi-layered Mylar cutouts. As something that she chose to take with her, Sawhorse Series:my father's daughter adds a paternal reference that remarkably resembles chromosomes, reminding us of the dual nature of our DNA inheritance. 

Compelling us to consider our own inheritance, both chosen and genetic, Iwai includes the written responses from a recent artist residency where she first began exploring these concepts. She asked visitors to share three things that, in an escape, they would take with them. Objects, attributes and implements are written on paper resembling chromosomal strands that spill from eggshells stamped "Escape."

For Daughter Cells, Iwai again invites others to share their stories of survival, separation, escape and inheritance in Escape Scenario.Daughter CellsInheritance, Separation and Survival,on view at the Watrous Gallery, extends the cell's story of recovery, relating it to a drama occurring on all levels. Themes around movement, birth, bloodlines, escape, inheritance and resilience are considered with drawing, photography, organic and inorganic sculpture, fiber and text. What is survival? What is escape and what do you bring with you?

Iwai interrogates the fail-safe escape plan as one rooted not in the negativity of emergency but as a hopeful disentanglement, a letting go and long goodbye that is positive as we examine what we have inherited. Iwai's art incorporates methods that stamp, weave, signal and bridge ideas to both mimic and explore scientific narratives played out on a larger human stage.