Ione Thorkelsson’s Synthia’s Closet is an artistic exploration of synthetic life

With her current exhibition, award-winning artist highlights the nuance of rapid scientific development

Ione Thorkelsson's exhibition, Synthia’s Closet photo by Miguel Yetman

Science is a discipline that pushes nature’s boundaries and questions known principles, and with today’s rate of scientific and technological advancement, there is a need to pause and ponder the impact scientific strides may be having on our society. With that in mind, Manitoban artist Ione Thorkelsson is determined to use her art to explore the interventive nature of science.

In a uniquely captivating and crafty manner, Thorkelsson is exploring the advent and advance of synthetic life in her exhibition Synthia’s Closet, on display at the School of Art Gallery from Jan. 12 to Feb. 24. With this installation, the recipient of the 2010 Governor General’s Award in Media and Visual Arts builds on her reputation as a conceptual contemporary visual artist and returns to her primary technique of glass blowing.

“I work with glass all the time, and I work with natural elements,” said Thorkelsson. “There was a new story about synthetic life and that got me thinking about putting these things together. Everything just seemed to come together at the right time at the right place.”

The story in question was one that took the scientific community by storm back in 2010, when American biotechnologist and entrepreneur John Craig Venter and his team of scientists successfully produced synthetic life from scratch in a Boston chemistry lab. This feat spurred Thorkelsson to stay abreast of developments in the scientific community about synthetic life while simultaneously working on an exhibition that explores the power and potential of man-made genomes.

Over the next five years, Thorkelsson consulted scientists and technicians, as she crafted the exhibition, and named it after Synthia – the name Venter and his team gave their invented synthetic organism.

“Synthetic life seemed like a big biological step to me,” said Thorkelsson. “A lot of my works are about difficult human interactions with the natural world and this seems to be about humans interfering with the natural world in a strange way. So it’s a continuation of themes that I have been working on.”

Ione Thorkelsson gives a presentation on her current exhibition Photo by Miguel Yetman

Synthia’s Closet forces one to perceive and react, apprehensively, to their natural environment. On entering the dark exhibition space, the visitor’s attention and focus is drawn to 31 hanging globes suspended from the roof and concentrated towards the far end of the gallery. Within each globe is a microenvironment containing vestigial elements of animal and plant species entwined with wire filaments. This spectacle, coupled with the silent ambience of the room, stuns the visitor – and is synonymous with man’s reaction to the seemingly non-intrusive interference of science with the natural order of life.

There are four panels at the entrance of the exhibition that visitors, who are so enticed by the suspended spectacle, will most likely miss or overlook. These panels include John Craig Venter’s Wikipedia page, a screenshot of the synthetic organism Synthia “Syn” Venter’s Facebook page, a cover page of a September 2014 issue of Popular Mechanics themed “How to Make Anything” – an issue that expands on artificial life – and page 84 of the same publication featuring an article titled “How to Make Things Glow.” These carefully selected and strategically placed panels highlight man’s vulnerability to the allure of scientific feats and negligence to gaining complete knowledge and understanding of the scientific discovery or process.

“I am fascinated by the progress of current research, and there is a potential for things, scientific discoveries, to happen rapidly. If all those things are happening at the same time, then it becomes a nuance to the situation,” said Thorkelsson. “I am hoping that people experience both those things: the energy, beauty, and science of the discoveries that are being made, but with a little bit of hesitation that what if those things go wrong.”

For Thorkelsson, this installation is perfect for the School of Art Gallery as she had been crafting the exhibition with the space in mind. She believes the relatively new gallery space bodes well for the university and is telling of the progressive nature of today’s artists and arts.

“I think there is energy in young people and that is amazing to have and watch. Young artists now seem to be open to all kinds of possibilities so they combine all kinds of arts styles, media, and crafts. I think it is a lively world out there.”


From Jan. 12 to Feb 24, Ione Thorkelsson’s exhibition Synthia’s Closet will be on display at the School of Art Gallery (225 ARTlab, 180 Dafoe Road). For more information about the exhibition, visit