Originally published in Art Papers, March/April 2001, pp. 16-19.

Art is Nature:
An Artist’s Perspective on a New Paradigm

George Gessert

The word nature has so many irreconcilable meanings, that it should be
printed in red, as a warning. Yet the word is not altogether useless. Darwin
described nature as a material system in which all living things are kin. It
includes us and all of our creations from language and ideas, to
agriculture, technology, and art. The Origin of Species, which was published
in 1859, laid the foundations for this nondualistic view of nature.

Biologists, anthropologists, geneticists, and others have built on it since.
Many Americans accept the Darwinian view of nature, but a great many do
not. [1] Evolution is only part of the problem. Evolution threatens a few
Protestant sects, but ecology, which is also rooted in Darwin’s writings,
calls into question the very foundations of the dominant order. Most of its
economic, legal, and social arrangements ignore or downplay ecological
relationships - this in spite of widespread public concern, decades of work
by conservationsists and environmentalists, and overwhelming scientific
evidence that human activities are causing a tidal wave of extinctions.

What does Darwin have to do with contemporary art? Not much, it seems.
Most contemporary work focuses on the human figure, or on artifacts or
technology. The figure and its extensions do not preclude exploration of
ecological relationships, and in the past a few Western artists, notably
Klee, Tobey, and some of the abstract expressionists and land artists, did
do something like that. However, more often the figure and its extensions
automatically evoke the preDarwinian faith that human beings are the center
of creation. According to that faith, nature is distinct from humankind and
art. Nature is useful as a stageset, or as a reservoir of raw materials, but
is not meaningful in itself. Of course, beliefs that the human figure
inspired between the Renaissance and the early 19th century are dead now,
but loss of faith has not always meant loss of old mental habits. From an
ecological point of view, much of today’s art is a hundred and forty years

During the last few decades, ecological artists have attempted to
reorient art from narrowly human concerns to the larger community of life.
For example, Helen and Newton Harrison’s Serpentine Lattice proposes to
establish watershed-associated wildlife preserves at approximately 40-mile
intervals from San Francisco north to the panhandle of Alaska. These
preserves would link remnants of the ancient Western maritime forest, which
has been severely fragmented by logging, urbanization, and agriculture.
Although this complex of art/nature preserves would benefit humans by
conserving water and other natural resources, and by slowing the loss of
species, some of which may have economic value, the Harrisons do not limit
value to the human species. Rather, each living thing generates its own
values out of its own needs. Ecosystems such as the Western maritime forest
are constellations of values that interact over geological time. Today it is
within human power to preserve or destroy such systems, so preservation
itself becomes art.

One of the implications of The Origin of Species is that traditional
plant and animal breeding are fine arts. In the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, writers, philosophers, and plant breeders speculated about this
kind of art. [2] Edward Steichen, who devoted much of his income from
photography to plant breeding, exhibited hybrid delphiniums at the Museum of
Modern Art in 1936. He believed that this exhibit confirmed plant breeding
as a fine art. [3] However, the traumas of World War II and the Holocaust
reduced genetics to the more-or-less exclusive property of medicine,
science, business, and government, and for four decades no artist that I
know of experimented again with plant breeding as an art. In the late
1980s, when I began exhibiting irises that I had hybridized, I had never
heard of Steichen’s delphiniums, and I had to reinvent the wheel. At first
I worked with only with irises, but later I exhibited daffodils, coleuses,
and streptocarpuses, as well as documentation of breeding projects. (Fig.
1) My installations have focused on the aesthetic qualities of humanly
created organisms, and on effects of aesthetic preferences on evolution.
Another artist who uses traditional breeding methods to create art is
Brandon Ballengée. Since the late 1990s he has been breeding amphibians. His
most ambitious project is an attempt to recreate a species of frog thought
to be extinct, the Dwarf African Clawed Frog, Hymenochirus curtipes. [4]
(Fig. 2) Ballengée says that if he achieves his aim, he would consider
releasing reconstituted curtipes back into the wild. He works closely with
biologists, who can help him assess risks associated with release. With
luck, his art may someday be evolving all on its own in Eastern Zaire,
niched into watery ecosystems and rippling through them.

In the last two years there has been a surge of interest in art that
engages genetics and the biological revolution - witness the last two Ars
Electronicas, both devoted to cultural implications of biotechnology, and
Paradise Now, a show of genetic art held at Exit Art in New York in
September and October, 2000. As a matter of full disclosure, i should say
that I had work in Paradise Now. Suzanne Anker and Gary Schneider, both of
whom were also in the show, have in addition had recent one-person shows.
Suzanne Anker’s elegant serigraphs and sculptures of chromosomes,
exhibited at UCU in New York in September, recall doodles, palimpsests, and
diverse systems of writing, as well as work of twentieth century artists
like Klee, Klein, and Pollock. Anker attends scrupulously to materials and
pictorial space. Applied to chromosomes, this rigorous aesthetic produces
paradoxical ways of seeing. On the one hand it permits appreciation of
chromosomes as pure visual entities. On the other, it encourages a
contemplative and intellectually playful frame of mind. From arcane
alphabets and visual puns come ramifying associations, and in the process
chromosomes become distributed through the matrixes of consciousness.
Gary Schneider’s Genetic Self-Portrait, originally exhibited at the
Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1999, and travelling since, is a series of
photographs of the artist’s body. [5] They range from an X-ray of his
skull, to images of his cells and DNA. The interior of the human body is
unfamiliar territory to most of us, so the microscopic details of
Schneider’s body may not immediately bring the human figure to mind, much
less self-portraiture, yet Schneider’s titles encourage us to make the
connection. He underscores it with references to medical photography. We
are led back to a human-centered view of the world. Yet Genetic
Self-Portrait leaves the door open, if only a little, to connect the human
body with other forms of life.

New technologies often make old problems worse. No one should be
surprised if biotechnology benefits primarily the rich, or favors forms of
expression that do not intrinsically challenge old, man-centered views of
the world. And yet biotechnology, and the kinds of art that it is
strengthening, present unique opportunities to leave anthropocentrism
behind. One of the most intriguing pieces at Paradise Now was trophoblast by
David Kremers. [Fig. 3] On first glance trophoblast looks the like an
abstract expressionist sketch of an embryo. However, the sketch is alive.
Kremers genetically altered E. coli bacteria so that they would produce
transparent colored substances. He then painted these bacteria on an acrylic
plate. Once the plate developed colors to his liking, Kremers sealed it, and
the bacteria stopped growing. Trophoblast can be read as a portrait of a
human being at a very early stage of development, but the form can also be
read as an embryonic mouse, say, or other mammal. Our beginnings are not too
different from theirs. Trophoblast affirms connections among all mammals,
and even beyond, because Kremers’ living hollow blob brings to mind all
embryonic life. Furthermore, some of our cell components have affinities
with bacteria, such as the ones that make up the image.

Kremers believes that live art implies new relationships between art
objects and their owners. “The sale of any living artifact requires an
approach to benefit that artifact. We must ask, What does this artifact
want? Where does it want to live.” [6] Ownership transforms into

What will custodianship of living artworks involve? Eduardo Kac explores
possibilities in his transgenic works. Transgenic art is Kac’s term for art
that uses genetic engineering to create new organisms. In GFP Bunny Kac,
working with French scientists, created a genetically engineered rabbit that
contains a jellyfish gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP). The rabbit,
named Alba, fluoresces bright green, but only under blue light. Ordinarily
Alba does not fluoresce, and looks like a typical white domesticated rabbit.
Alba’s capacity to look and function normally is important to Kac. He did
not want to create an animal that was so different from its fellows that its
social life with them would be harmed. Concern for the rabbit’s well-being
also decided use of GFP, rather than some other source of bioluminescence.
Organisms can be genetically engineered to contain the gene for luciferase,
the light-source in fireflies, but luciferase harms some animals. GFP has
been tranferred many times into mice and rabbits, and evidently without
hurting them.

The aesthetic novelty of a rabbit that fluoresces is enough to make GFP
Bunny a sensation, but that novelty is not the most important aspect of the
project. Kac is most interested in how we perceive genetically engineered
organisms, and how we integrate them into our lives. When he exhibits Alba,
he does so in a living-room-like setting that he inhabits along with the
rabbit. The setting draws attention to the social networks in which she
exists. These networks include her interactions with other rabbits, her
interactions with human beings, and human interactions with one another in
response to her. Kac’s longterm plan for Alba is to make her a member of his
household. Questions about the definition of nature fall away before
questions of the well-being of animals, and of connections between species.
Kac’s best-known transgenic work is Genesis. (Fig. 4) For this work he
translated into the four-letter alphabet of DNA a passage from the Bible,
“Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air,
and all creatures that crawl upon the land.” He then ordered a strand of DNA
that contained the sequence - there are now mail order places that do this
sort of thing. The order took about two weeks to complete, and cost a mere
$8,000. I say “mere” without irony. Just a few years ago the sequencing
would have cost many times as much. [7] With the help of yet another
technician Kac had the DNA inserted into an E. coli bacterium.

At the O.K. Centrum in Linz, Austria, where Genesis was first displayed
in 1999, it occupied a room in which the Biblical passage was on one wall,
the DNA sequence on another, and a projection of a petri dish of genetically
altered bacteria on a third. They looked like glowing rain. The effect was
visually stunning - but also shocking, especially in the context of Linz,
which is near where Hitler was born, and one of his favorite cities. Genetic
engineering lends itself to the megalomanias that thrive on collective
hubris. Genesis brought this point home.

We don’t know exactly how the ancient Hebrews understood the passage
that Kac quotes, but in the light of non-Judeo-Christian religious
traditions and of ecology, it rings violently self-important. [8] That
arrogance has guided Western civilization, and informs biotechnology today.
By joining the Bible and genetic engineering Kac draws attention to a frozen
strata of culture from which technological civilization perpetuates age-old
patterns of alienation and exploitation. Kac’s Genesis is hopeful to the
extent that awareness of historical roots can produce change.
The most direct way to explore art as part of nature is to work
respectfully with other living things. But this brings up a problem: art
museums and galleries are architecturally designed to exclude all nonhuman
life from interior spaces. This is useful to keep bird droppings off
sculptures, but the message goes far beyond good housekeeping. The
structures of galleries shamelessly flatter us into seeing our works as
supreme examples of creative energy, and ourselves as the only species
worthy of entering sacred space. Even the most enlightened curators cannot
fully overcome the limitations of galleries. For example, a problem that I
often run into when I exhibit plants is lack of windows. Plants need light
to live. I can build light tables, but that takes time and money, and
distracts audiences from what is most important, the organisms themselves.
To the best of my knowledge, not a single exhibition space for art anywhere
in the world has been designed with nonhuman organisms in mind - even though
many artists work with them, and even though audiences and some critics
accept them. In Europe Louis Bec has gotten around architectural obstacles
by exhibiting in zoos.

The Darwinian view of nature implies radically new uses of art, among
them to provide mirrors and models of evolution. We need nonheirarchical
models that affirm kinship. In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to get to know
our kin better. Most of us, and especially children, are fascinated by
plants and animals. According to the biophilia hypothesis this may have a
genetic basis. [9] While the structures and ontologies of our bodies
accommodate technology, first and foremost they are tuned to savannahs,
forests, and the sea. Anyone who wants to know more about themselves would
do well to spend more time with plants and animals - wild, domesticated, and
genetically engineered as well.

This article was adapted from a talk given on a panel organized by Kenneth
Rinaldo for the 2000 College Art Association.


1. The Darwinian view of nature should not be confused with Social
Darwinism. Evolution and ecology are grounded in science, but Social
Darwinism, which equates social and economic success with biological
success, is a major myth of capitalism. Darwin was quite clear about what
constituted biological success: progeny. Economic and social success may
result in numerous progeny, but very often do not. In fact, since the 19th
century there has been something of an inverse relationship between economic
and biological success, at least in the industrialized world. From a
Darwinian point of view, the fact that the poor tend to have more offspring
than the rich, implies one of two things: either the poor are genetically
superior to the rich - the exact opposite of what Social Darwinists claim -
or else the rich inhabit biological disadvantageous environments.
2. For a history of the rise, fall, and rediscovery of genetic art, see
George Gessert, “A Brief History of Art Involving DNA” Art Papers, Sept.-
Oct., 1996.
3. Ronald J. Gedrim, “Edward Steichen’s 1936 Exhibition of Delphinium
Blooms” in History of Photography, Vol. 17, No. 4, Winter 1993. London:
Taylor and Francis.
4. According to Ballengée, data on Hymenochirus curtipes is not conclusive,
but the species is probably extinct.
5. David Kremers, “The Delbruck Paradox 2.0” in Art Journal, Vol. 55, No.
1, Spring 1966. pp. 38-39.
6. See Gary Schneider, Genetic Self-Portrait. Syracuse, N.Y. , Light Work,
7. Kac reports that as of October, 2000 he could have had the job done for
$500. Genetic engineering is now priced within the reach of most artists.
Natalie Jeremijenko and Heath Bunting already have a website,
www.irational.org/biotech to encourage artists and others to engage in
“garage biotechnology.”
8. Many non-Judeo-Christian religions place high value on plants and
animals, and link their well-being to ours. For example, in Buddhism
individual happiness is inseparable from the happiness of all other sentient
beings. According to the Lotus Sutra Buddha said, “I appear in the world
like a great cloud that showers moisture upon all the dry and withered
living beings, so that all are able to escape suffering, gain the joy of
peace and security, the joys of this world, and the joy of nirvana.” Trans.
Burton Watson in Dharma Rain, Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft, eds. Boston
and London: Shambhala, 2000. p 45.
9. For perspectives on the biophilia hypothesis, see Stephen R. Kellert and
E. O. Wilson, eds., The Biophilia Hypothesis. Shearwater Books, 1993.

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