Fantastic Voyage

Susan Zoccola makes art from your innards.

Remember that old sci-fi movie, Fantastic Voyage? The one where Raquel Welch and other scientists are shrunk and injected into a human body, along with their submarine? To save the patient, they push through dangling gooey corpuscles, draped antibodies, and curtains of nerve cells. Thinking back to old afternoon TV reruns of the movie, Susan Zoccola laughs. "That's probably been imparted too well," she says, standing next to her latest sculpture. Hung from the ceiling, the dangly white contraption is still under construction."These are like neurons," says Zoccola of the suspended lattice of plaster-wrapped wire. Or they might be seen as "plant tendrils in a pot."Whether pot, skull, room, or Petri dish, the enclosure is the environment, and the contents are guided by forces both internal and external. The brain, after all, is plastic, not static; it's constantly forming new synaptic pathways, adapting to damage and stimulus. "I'm interested in things that seem fixed, but aren't," Zoccola says.It's no surprise that she started out in science, studying physics at the UW. "But," she found, "I enjoyed making the models more than doing the math." She eventually switched to art, training here and at the San Francisco Art Institute (with a little time in film school).But she's kept her scientific bent. "I'm interested in patterns in nature—trees without leaves, vascular systems, microscopic dendrites of neurons, the physiology of basket starfish," she says. "Also astronomy and astrophysics."In addition to the drawings of pioneering Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934), she enjoys flipping through old scientific textbooks, anatomy drawings, scanning electron microscope images—"I love all that stuff."The ultimate size of the piece she's currently working on will be determined sometime between now and Artopia. The "connective shapes" reach outward with a tangled impulse to grow and relay information (whether electrical, chemical, or visual). By magnifying and exposing these giant conduits, the piece proposes that we're all joined to one another and the environment. "I find this vast, beautiful system comforting," says Zoccola.She also sees a feedback at work between artwork and artist. While adding new nodes, or "weightless bundles of electricity," Zoccola says, "my neurons intuit a new pattern." In part, she muses, the sculpture illustrates "how we can influence our neural pathways with our thoughts." The piece grows by accretion and suggestion. Zoccola's studio is filled with bins of old wire—copper, steel, and lots of "baling wire—I'm wrapping it [with white plaster] in an obsessive and anal way. I'm a materials junkie, and materials do inform the work."So does medical history. In particular, she cites Ramón y Cajal, whose intricate drawings of brain cells are also referenced in some of her smaller pieces—which she has shown in prior exhibits at SOIL, Winston Wächter, and Ouch My Eye.And those brain cells, like the wires, are conductors charged with current. "I think of the brain as being the entire body—this electrochemical network," says Zoccola.bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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