Block Museum Student Associates select work by Michael Koerner as 2022 Student Acquisition

Following a ten-week long decision process, The Block Museum of Art and the 2021-2022 Block Museum Student Associates (BMSA) cohort are pleased to announce the acquisition of Blue DNA#1205L – #1201R (2021), Worlds #0318 (2020), and The Beast Diagnosis #8942 (2019) by Illinois-based interdisciplinary artist Michael Koerner. Koerner’s work explores his family history and genetics through small tintypes, using photographic chemistry to assimilate the bursts and biochemical fallout from the atom bomb.

The selection is the third annual Block Museum student-led acquisition to the collection, succeeding the 2021 selection of Leonard Suryajaya’s Quarantine Blues (2020) and the 2020 selection of Myra Greene’s Undertone #17, #23, #51 (2017-2018). Over the 2021-2022 academic year, Block Museum Student Associates researched several artists with the primary goal of collecting around the theme of “Earth” while also seeking work that would complement the museum’s collection, connect to the mission, and coincide with curriculum across Northwestern University. The acquisition project reflects the expansion of the Student Associate’s role within The Block, which includes not only engaging with the public but also working to advise the museum and shape its relevance and connection to student experience. The purchase was made possible by the generous funding of individual donors and the Block Museum Student Impact Fund.

“It has been a pleasure to work with the Student Associates and our curatorial colleagues on this year’s student acquisition. We are delighted to bring Michael Koerner’s work into the collection and look forward to the rich conversations it will inspire at the intersections of science, art, technology, the environment, and our shared human experience, on and off-campus, for years to come.”

— Erin Northington, Susan and Stephen Wilson Associate Director, Campus and Community Education and Engagement

2022 Student Acquisition Justification

All acquisitions to The Block Museum of Art’s collection require a formal justification presentation and documentation. In this video, Student Associates present an overview of the artwork and the justification process for selecting it.

These works by Koerner are entering the collection at a time of immense global strife as war ignites in Ukraine and a renewed nuclear threat resurrects the globe’s Cold War-era fears. Acquiring these works in a newfound era of uncertainty allows art to provide a potential catalyst for better understanding and coping with the realities we presently face. In his works, he offers a new framing of tragedy and how tragedy affects and manifests contemporarily, explicitly locating their implications in human cell structure.

Student Associates Acquisition Justification

Worlds #0318, from the series Worlds, 2020.
Chemigram on wet plate collodion positive (tintype)
8 x 12 inches

The object’s title hints at physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s infamous invocation of the Bhagavad Gita upon witnessing the experimental detonation of an atomic bomb during the Trinity test: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. In referencing a quote from one of the developers of the atomic bomb, Koerner blurs the distinctions between his ongoing experiences with genetic problems and family loss, bombing of Nagasaki, and Oppenheimer’s work within the Manhattan Project. This series can also be seen as an investigation of the cause of the genetic mutations or a macroscopic scale approach to this theme.

The Beast Diagnosis #8942, from series The Beast Diagnosis, 2019.
Chemigram on wet plate collodion positive (tintype)
8 x 12 inches

The Beast Diagnosis #8942 (2019) features an undulating, bright white blot that signifies a tumor. The blot is a feature in a chaotic array of dendritic chemical growths — echoing the growth of a tumor in a seemingly healthy body. Koerner shared that the work delivered a positive impact on patients with cancers, who found that the art helped them visualize their ailments.

Blue DNA #1205L – #1201R, from the series Blue DNA, 2021.
Chemigram on wet plate collodion positive (tintype) (diptych)
12 x 16 inches overall

The diptych Blue DNA #1205L – #1201R (2021) represents the results of radiation on an individual level, consisting of individual nodules of chemical fractals that form a double-helix arrangement winding across two panels of the diptych and recall DNA. The diptych is the physically largest object, signifying the most microscopic example in exploration of the theme. There are two “strands” that sit on a blue background that fades into black, winding and expanding across two panels. Each side of the diptych is viewed separately and shows an intersection of individual strands — two Xs that help construct Koerner’s visualization of his own genes on a microscopic level.

Describe the context of the artwork and the artist’s process?

Michael Koerner’s artwork derives from his family history. He was born to a Japanese mother and American military father in 1963. Koerner’s mother was 11 years old and a mere 45 miles away from Nagasaki when the United States detonated a nuclear bomb and later passed away due to Cushing’s Disease. As the eldest of five brothers, Koerner experienced loss at a young age with the passing of all brothers from health complications. In his professional life, he worked as a pharmaceutical process chemist, a product development and formulation scientist, and then in chemistry research. In 2000, he began teaching chemistry at the University of Arizona and a decade later, he began tenure as a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013.

Koerner’s artistic practice and academic career are a result of his efforts to understand his familial trauma and the genetic fallout he’s inherited from the Nagasaki bombing. Using self-taught chemical choices and processes, Koerner explores family history and genetics through small tintypes. He uses photographic chemistry to absorb the bursts and biochemical fallout from the nuclear bomb. To create his art, Koerner strategically drops chemicals onto tin plates treated with collodion that react with each other to blossom into fractal formations. The unpredictability of the fractal formation symbolizes Koerner’s limited control over his genetic defects. Driven by the permanence of personal loss and genetic matters, it is a project he will continuously work on for the remainder of his time in this world.

How does this work relate to The Block’s collection and other existing collections at Northwestern?

The acquisition joins the museum’s growing collection of photographs and creates an opportunity for dialogue around his methods and history. Koerner’s engagement with history, particularly traumatic and personal history, echoes other influential photographers in the collection such as Dawoud Bey, Tseng Kwong Chi, and Hai Bo. Furthermore, Koerner’s work shares a strong connection to works recently exhibited in Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking About History with The Block’s Collection (2021) which explore personal histories and an ongoing intersection with social, political, and environmental forms of violence against Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Another relevant connection is with The Galter Health Science Library and Learning Center which is associated with Feinberg School of Medicine, which presents robust resources on the science and medical field. Students will have the opportunity to take an advanced scientific and technical approach to Koerner’s work, allowing them to explore the details of his chemistry-based process and dissect the biological and genetic impacts Koerner discusses.

How does this work connect with The Block Museum’s mission?

The acquisitions align with the museum’s mission to foster interdisciplinary discussions where art is used as a medium for immeasurably exploring salient subjects that transcend boundaries. For the Block Museum Student Associates, Koerner and his work embody the idea of an interdisciplinary thought process and creativity. The BMSA believes Koerner’s work represents a local and global perspective, amplifies interdisciplinary thinking and opportunities for research across the university, illuminates the events of our time — particularly the nuclear tensions that have been heightened during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and builds awareness of underrepresented histories around and the continued impact of World War II.

What is the potential use in teaching and research?

Michael Koener’s work offers a plethora of educational access points to consider. Blue DNA#1205L – #1201R (2021), Worlds #0318 (2020), and The Beast Diagnosis #8942 (2019) can be particularly generative in science, history, Anthropocene, and nuclear warfare discussions. By confronting and memorializing the radiation impacts on his family tree and own DNA, Koerner personalizes the devastating and long-lasting impacts of war. This may allow researchers, professors, and students to intensively delve into larger discussions around humanity’s lasting impact on societies and the environment and invite a widespread conversation on lasting psychological dimensions of trauma, survivor’s guilt, and memory on how art may offer new opportunities for reflection. Ultimately, the personal nature of the art to Koerner and his family provides an indispensable opportunity for visitor engagement on the impacts of World War II in Asia, United States involvement, and Japanese internment in American history.

These complex topics will position well with Northwestern’s History and Asian American Studies programs and will most likely interest student groups such as the Asian Pacific American Coalition and Fossil Free Northwestern. The BMSA believes Koerner’s artwork will spark critical conversations on citizenship, nationalism, immigration, and borders.

Acquisition research and report contributed by Mayan Alvarado-Goldberg ’24, Neuroscience, Solome Bezuneh ’24, Communication Studies, Carolina Carret ’23, Legal Studies, Vitoria Monteiro de Carvalho Faria ’23, Art History and Economics , Karan Gowda ‘21, Biological Sciences, Global Health Studies, Chayda Harding ’22, History, Zeki Hirsch ’24, Art History, Hyohee Kim ’22, Learning Sciences and Asian American Studies, Katy Kim ’23, Art History and Political Science, Nozizwe Msipa ’24, Communication Studies, Margeaux Rocco ’23, Economics, Bengi Rwabuhemba ’23, Anthropology, Joyce Wang ’24, Economics and Data Science, Bobby Yalam ’24, Comparative Literary Studies, Hank Yang ’24, Journalism and Political Science (May 2, 2022); Blog presented with the support of Hadia Nayab Shaikh, Assistant to the Director.

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