St. Paul Pioneer Press, MN, Mar. 07, 2004, p. 1E and 12E.

Life as Art -- Art as life
Art and science converge in fascinating ways in the Weisman's 'Gene(sis)' exhibit, which explores the genetic revolution.


Call it the gene genie.

Since the Human Genome Project succeeded in cracking our genetic code, that genie is out of the bottle, dangling a lot more than three wishes in front of us. Do we want to attempt to create people of superior skills and intelligence? Fuse the characteristics of one species into another? Reverse the effects of aging?

These are but a few of the questions raised by one of the most provocative art exhibits ever to appear at a Twin Cities art museum. "Gene(sis)," on display at the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum, is a rare meeting of the muses of art and the minds of science — a collection of works that deal with the quandaries that confront us now that we hold what scientists say is key to understanding human individuality.

Chicago artist Eduardo Kac spliced the genes of a rabbit with those of a luminescent jellyfish to create a bunny that glows in black light. Trios of genetic maps on the museum's east wall raise controversial questions about what constitutes a "family." Another work by Kac gives you a chance to play God by allowing you to alter the form of bacteria with ultraviolet light.

"The most controversial aspect of the exhibition is that artists are now able to create new forms of life," says Robin Held, the curator who procured these works for the original "Gene(sis)" exhibit at the University of Washington. "For example, Eduardo Kac's 'GFP Bunny.' This is not an artist creating an object; it's an artist creating a subject. That's new, and it's compelling, thrilling and scary and calls for a new kind of accountability."

"I'd never created a synthetic gene before," Kac said from his office at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is a professor. "I found the process quite remarkable. We are told that genes are the secret of life and that they explain life, but then you hold the synthetic DNA in your hand, and it looks like salt — it doesn't do anything — and it becomes clear to you that the gene is nothing outside of its context, outside an organism."

Kac says he wanted to use DNA for a "nonbiological purpose." Instead, his aim was "visual, philosophical, literary, poetic" — to make it evident "that the DNA is an instrument through which you can sing different songs."

His interactive work, in which you can click on a computer mouse and activate an ultraviolet light, thereby causing bacteria within a Petri dish to mutate, allows viewers to play the DNA instrument along with him.

"You're participating in one essential aspect of evolution, which is mutation," Kac said. "And you are becoming an active agent of evolution. It presents you with this conundrum: To click or not to click."

Home to a renowned Center for Bioethics that grapples regularly with where and when ethical lines should be drawn in this brave new world, the University of Minnesota seemed a natural place to host the first museum exhibition to be registered with the National Institutes of Health as a lab activity, Held says.

"I think that all the works in the exhibit raise ethical questions and issues," says Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Center for Bioethics. "But, for me, one of the most powerful is Eduardo Kac's 'Gene(sis),' in that it raises issues about dominion over nature, our ability to effect genetic change, the fragility of our genetic information and our need to use genetic science responsibly."

The works in the exhibit fall into one of four categories: Sequence, Boundary, Specimen and Subject. Next to the description of each piece is a square bearing the color that corresponds to its category.

The pieces in "Sequence" explore how genomics is portrayed in the media with the help of cartoonists Roz Chast and Tom Tomorrow, among others. "Boundary" looks at the "now permeable boundaries between species" and features Catherine Chalmers' photos of transgenic mice as well as Kac's aforementioned "GFP Bunny."

Then, there are the "Specimen" works, which deal with the issues of DNA ownership and the management of genetic information. Among the most provocative are the pieces that Christine Borland built around the "HeLa" strain of genes, which has contributed to seeking cures for a variety of diseases but has been used without the knowledge of the (now deceased) woman from which they came or (until relatively recently) her family.

But "Subject" may be the most intriguing category in the exhibit. Here, artists lend their own insights to the issues at hand in far more free-form fashion, going where inspiration leads them. For example, the sentries at the entrance to the exhibit are 11 "judges" created by Chinese artist Daniel Lee, each a hybrid of a human and another animal. Based upon the teachings of a Buddhist sect, the mythical beasts judge the actions of your previous life and determine what you will be in your next. But Lee makes the idea of spliced species seem more than a myth.

Meanwhile, light from the Weisman's largest window shines upon Jill Reynolds' "Family Tree II," a towering tree wrapped in rubber tubing and Petri dishes with living, breathing yeast within.

While challenging a visitor's worldview may be the linchpin of all great art, "Gene(sis)" is infused with an uncommon — and unsettling — sense of urgency. As science hurtles forward, the exhibit encourages you to leap aboard the high-speed train and ponder what stops it might make along the way.

"The ultimate meanings of the human genome will not be decided by scientists alone," curator Held said. "We're all part of these decisions."

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