Seattle Times, Entertainment & the Arts: Sunday, May 05, 2002
Commentary: A dim view of glowing bunny as art
By Sheila Farr
Alba is an albino rabbit who lives in a laboratory in France and, under a certain kind of light, glows fluorescent green. That's because she was, though no fault of her own, genetically engineered using material from a jellyfish.
A few years ago such stuff was the realm of science fiction. But now that cloning and genetic manipulation of mammals is a reality, Eduardo Kac, the Chicago artist who commissioned the rabbit from a French laboratory, has dubbed his act a work of art. Whether it is has been the subject of hot debate. A spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has said, "If he (Kac) is really interested in glowing bunnies, he should stick to Playboy. At least they have a choice."
A photograph of Kac snuggling Alba (the Spanish word for "dawn") in his arms and looking like a proud papa is part of the Henry Art Gallery show "Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics." Initially, when Alba was created in 2000, Kac had planned to publicly exhibit her, then take her home as a family pet. But the lab that produced her refused to let her go.
A host of contentious issues form the heart of "Gene(sis)." They also, in a way, cause the show's downfall. Much of the work gets mired in explanations about its relevance because it can't communicate successfully on its own. That's why, even with such pressing legal and ethical questions motivating the work, the exhibition itself is surprisingly bland.
That's a frequent problem with art labeled "conceptual." But it's the label that's at fault. An artist who makes a piece in response to an interesting idea is not automatically making conceptual art. The art itself must express an idea preferably an iconoclastic one and that idea should be discernable to an interested observer without having to read an explanation. It should be mind-expanding and maybe a little maddening.
This whole discussion stems back to Marcel Duchamp and his seminal works of conceptual art. Famously, in 1917, the French artist took a factory-made urinal and dubbed it sculpture. The piece, titled "Fountain," created a scandal, and the point he made was revolutionary that a work of art could exist through the act of being recognized by an artist, that the process of creating could take place in the mind. It was an epiphany. And people have been arguing about it ever since.
Much of the Henry show is unlikely to arouse that kind of passion. To figure out what some of the work is about, or even its connection to genetics, you have to read the wall text. Even after that, you might be left wondering.
Kac's piece, at first glance, may seem fairly obvious. He commissioned a lab to make him a rabbit that glows green. He took an idea and turned it into a literal act of creation. What if, instead of writing the novel "Frankenstein," Mary Shelley had hired a lab to make such a monster?
Actually, in Kac's case, that isn't the whole story and it took some investigation, beyond what's revealed in the wall text at the Henry, to find that out. For one thing, the laboratory Kac enlisted to make Alba had already created other fluorescent albino bunnies for research purposes. The "design" of the rabbit was not Kac's. Some scientists reportedly have complained that Kac grabbed the glory for something he didn't do. There's also been a firestorm of protest from animal-rights activists, art critics and other concerned parties, while Kac, who relishes the attention, defends the project (overzealously in my opinion) with a lot of philosophical rhetoric.
If Kac had in fact invented Alba, I'd be among protesters. Art is a symbolic act and taking it into a literal realm would have overstepped artistic and ethical boundaries. But he didn't. In a way, Alba corresponds to Duchamp's urinal: she's a ready-made. Kac recognized such a creature as provocative and aesthetically interesting, and the issues inherent in her being are ones that should concern all of us: Science has made it possible to alter and create animals and people in a way that our laws and our consciences can't yet fathom.
Alba can represent the hidden fate of a million research animals or the designer pets of the near future a custom creation to suit someone's fancy. Like it or not, these things are happening. And people are lining up to take advantage of the possibilities. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of extra effort and outside research to understand Kac's act in that light.
Human beings are famous for wanting to mess with destiny. That's what science, technology and medicine are all about: finding ways to change and if all goes right improve the hand that nature dealt us.
It's an artist's job, on the other hand, to stand outside the fray and act as a voice of conscience and foresight when the errant capabilities of human nature threaten to turn our civilization on its head. That's why Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein," and the monster she imagined has become a symbol of the way our intellects outrun our souls.
Although Kac has called the Frankenstein story a cliché, it may have been his intention to create the same kind of potent symbol. He didn't succeed. His presentation of Alba relies so heavily on rhetoric to make its point that it doesn't really function as art.
Sheila Farr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2270.
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