For this artist, making art with an MRI is no different than taking a photo

Made with medical tech, Marilène Oliver's artwork will make you think about the skin you're in. She talks us through Tagged, a "mini retrospective" of her work.

Made with medical tech, Marilène Oliver's artwork will make you think about the skin you're in

Marilène Oliver. Detail of Stretch, 2017. Copper, fluorescent paint and steel rods. (Courtesy of the artist)

What you're looking at is difficult to categorize, to classify — to tag.

So let's start with the basics.

Those ghostly figures in the pictures? They're made by U.K. artist Marilène Oliver, and through Nov. 10 you'll find them on display in Edmonton at the University of Alberta's FAB Gallery.

Oliver's an assistant professor at the U of A, and since her own school days at London's Royal College of Art, she's worked with tools typically reserved for medical professionals — MRI, CT and PET scans.

Marilène Oliver. Installation view of Tagged. (Courtesy of the artist)

Technically, you could call her artwork prints, since they are, on one level, prints of the data that comes out of those scans.

But — clear as acetate — they look like sculptures. Every humanoid is a stack of slides — slides made of, well, acetate or etched copper or laser-cut Masonite, etc.

When I first started working with [medical imaging], I didn't see how it's different from photography.- Marilène Oliver, artist

How Oliver actually gets access to this kind of data has changed over the years. In the very beginning, she sent letters to every radiology department in the U.K., politely asking the technicians to scan her — plus her mom and dad and sister. (The result of that particular example was Family Portrait in 2003.)

Marilène Oliver. Family Portrait, 2003. Bronze ink screen-printed onto 3mm clear acrylic. (Courtesy of the artist)

Since 2007, though, she's relied on files that anyone can access for free online. Her go-to source is a full-body PET-CT scan of an unidentified woman ("Melanix"), and using radiology software, she can export that data to produce forms like the ones seen in the pictures appearing throughout this article.

"When I first started working with [medical imaging], I didn't see how it's different from photography," Oliver says. 

But about four years ago, something changed how she understood the technology she'd been using throughout her career.

"A very personal thing happened," she says. "My mother was diagnosed with early onset Lewy Body Dementia."

"As a family, we didn't accept [the news] until we saw this scan — which uses traces that tag the proteins that prove that the disease is there. And it made me think about this notion of tagging."

Tagged is what Oliver calls her current series of work. It's also the name of her show at the FAB Gallery — a "mini retrospective" that also includes Family Portrait and a 2011-13 series, Confusão.

Marilène Oliver. Detail of Blue Glow, 2016. Inkjet, white out and fluorescent paint on acetate. (Courtesy of the artist)
Marilène Oliver. Dreamcatcher, 2009. Laser-cut clear acrylic, fishing wire and ostrich feathers. (Courtesy of the artist)
Marilène Oliver. Fallen Durga, 2010. Hand-cut multilayered coroplast. (Courtesy of the artist)
Marilène Oliver. Dugout, 2013. Laser-cut and hand-charred MDF. (Courtesy of the artist)

"Tagging is something that we are doing, very much, in our daily lives," she says. When you highlight a key passage in a textbook — that's a kind of tagging, she explains. But there's also the more unavoidable, digital example.

Think about what happens every time you open Facebook or Instagram or whatever app devours most of your waking hours.

Tags are everywhere. They're how you make sense of the firehose of words and pictures that is the internet. Tags help us search out the things we want to see. They're what we add to the stuff we're adding the informational deluge ourselves — tagging friends and topics and places.

And when you tag something, you're the one in charge. You get to decide what matters, and what that post means.

In medical imaging, it's different. Tags have meaning, but where and when they appear is out of your control.

She was forgetting me. [...] What I wanted to see is me in her brain.- Marilène Oliver, artist

When Oliver first saw her mother's brain scans, she was confronted with something she did not want to see: "She was forgetting me."

"I didn't want to see these highlights," she says of the tags. "What I wanted to see is me in her brain."

In response, she began work on what would become the Tagged series.

The first piece involved her mother's own medical scans. In performance, Oliver doused herself with water, and interacted with large-scale prints — essentially stamping herself on her mom's brain. (She and Montreal choreographer Isabelle Van Grimde are now developing a piece called "Headrest," inspired by the work.)

It's not included in the Tagged exhibition, however. The three new pieces in the show move beyond that deeply emotional starting point, but there's a common idea that links the work together.

Marilène Oliver. Blue Glow, 2017. Inkjet prints on acetate, white out and fluorescent paint. (Marilène Oliver)
Marilène Oliver. Blue Glow, 2017. Inkjet prints on acetate, white out and fluorescent paint. (Marilène Oliver)

Every aspect of our lives is mediated through technology — to the point that it dictates how we see, and understand, what's going on in the human body. As empowering as that can be, we're still strangely disconnected from the skin we're in. The figures in Tagged suggest a state of being that connects those two realities.

They're bent and split and stretched into yoga poses — a nod to being fully grounded in their human forms, Oliver explains.

But obviously, you've never seen women like this IRL. Life-size stacks of printed data, they glow like phone screens under the black light, marked with neon "tags" that mimic the fluorescent tracers in a medical scan.

Marilène Oliver. Stretch, 2017. Copper, fluorescent paint and steel rods. (Courtesy of the artist)

"[They're] showing us something, which I would say is about our bodies and about medicine and our relationship with our bodies," Oliver says.

"The primary thing that I hoped people would get from it is this need to think about just being present," she says. "Just being with each other — there's so much more from that than all this mediation through technology."

Marilène Oliver. Forward Fold, 2017. Steel, laser-cut MDF, fluorescent paint and neon glitter. (Courtesy of the artist)
Marilène Oliver. Detail of Forward Fold, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

Marilène Oliver. Tagged. To Nov. 10 at FAB Gallery, University of Alberta, Edmonton.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.