More science than self-expression
NYC exhibit explores genetics through art
By Carol Strickland
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Who knew? Ever since C.P. Snow's famous 1959 lecture,
"The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," where he
placed scientists and arts practitioners at opposite poles, we've
assumed the twain shall never meet. Now an art exhibition
inspired by discoveries in genetics at Exit Art gallery in New
York City's SoHo refutes Snow's claim that "a gulf of mutual
incomprehension" divides science and art.
In the show "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic
Revolution," through Oct. 28, 39 artists display works in a
variety of mediums - photographs, paintings, sculpture,
computer works, and mixed-media installations - that are
almost more science projects or social commentary than
Curators Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric checked out
works by more than 150 artists. "If it had a beaker in the
artwork, we looked at it," Ms. Kismaric said. They discovered
a subculture of artists exploring implications of the genetic
As Eric S. Lander, director of the Whitehead Institute/M.I.T.
Center for Genome Research, said of the Human Genome
Project in a panel discussion in New York Sept. 20, "Over the
next century, this will transform society."
Artists function like canaries in a coal mine, giving early
warning of toxic fumes. In this case, the artists question the
consequences (privacy and identity issues) of genetic
engineering, such as cloning and patenting genes. In a press
conference at the exhibition, artist Frank Moore summed up
the need to confront issues arising from the genetic
revolution: "It's important to yoke our knowledge with a sense
of ethics and history to make wisdom."
The works in "Paradise Now" examine the benefits and
abuses of our growing power to manipulate biology. As
Snow said of technology: "It brings you great gifts with one
hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other."
Among the "great gifts" is the potential to "improve" nature
and feed the world through breeding pest-resistant plants or
meatier animals. Alexis Rockman's painting "The Farm"
shows how agribusiness might transform future foodstuffs.
He pictures a featherless chicken with six wings and
rectangular zucchini designed to be packaging-friendly. In
this version of "American Gothic," the old-fashioned farm
becomes an artificial pharm.
Images of how
forced a tomato
to grow in a
a smiley face.
In Eva Sutton's
viewer can create
mixing body modules - attaching, for instance, a camel's head
to a grasshopper torso and bird legs.
The opportunity to be a supreme creator (dare we say
"playing God"?) is not so far removed from what one artist
has done. Eduardo Kac's piece "Genesis" displays bacteria
with synthetic DNA, created by him and by computer users,
who log on to his Web site, thereby shining a light on the
bacteria, causing it to mutate. (Mr. Kac recently
commissioned French scientists to create "Alba," a white
rabbit infused with luminescent genes from a jellyfish. The
rabbit glows green in blue light.)
Several of the artists question the merger of science and
commerce. Christy Rupp displays plastic deli containers with
labels like "Greed Beans." Frank Moore's painting "Oz" is
dense with metaphorical narratives skeptical of DNA dollars.
A heap of consumer goods is topped by a pianist, suggesting
a link between materialism and the Holy Grail of producing
genes for genius. A beanstalk, out of the "Jack and the
Beanstalk" fable, sprouts from a mound of gold coins.
Other artists produced portraits of their subjects' DNA rather
than renderings of their external appearance, suggesting we
are our genetic makeup rather than the sum of our experience.
Steve Miller and Kevin Clarke began their respective portraits
of Isabel Goldsmith and James D. Watson, co-discoverer of
the structure of DNA, with blood samples.
Mr. Miller's four-panel electron micrograph of Goldsmith's
dividing chromosomes is silkscreened in Day-Glo colors like
a Warhol celebrity portrait. Mr. Clarke's version of Watson
superimposes letters from his genetic code - A, T, C, G - on
photographs of empty laboratory shelving, twisted like the
famous double helix.
Rebecca Howland's fragile ink drawings, paired with written
musings, are the most low-tech. In one drawing, Ms.
Howland scribbles the question she asked her Buddhist
teacher: "If they clone me, does my spirit come too?" Answer:
"No, same apartment, different tenant."
'Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution,' is on
display at New York's Exit Art through Oct. 28. For more
information log on to www.exitart.org and www.geneart.org
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