First published in: "Rabbit Remix" (exhibition catalogue), Laura Marsiaj Arte Contemporânea, Rio de Janeiro, n.p.n. The exhibition was realized from September 19 to October 21, 2004.

Eduardo Kac in Wonderland

Didier Ottinger

(English translation by Stephen Berg)

“[The twentieth century] was the century of physics and chemistry.
But it is clear that the next century will be the century of biology.”
Robert F. Curl, 1996 Nobel prize-winning chemist.

In 1917, an anonymous artist drew from his hat a urinal as immaculate as an albino rabbit and submitted it unretouched to the New York Independents exhibition. The painter George Bellows, was outraged: “We cannot exhibit it”. The collector Walter Arensberg came to the defense of the offending object: “We cannot refuse it, the entrance fee has been paid.”

Bellows: “It is indecent!”

Arensberg: “A lovely form has been revealed, freed from its functional purpose, therefore someone has clearly made an aesthetic contribution.”

After heated discussion, the urinal was eventually excluded from the exhibition.

The “anonymous” artist was a chess player named Marcel Duchamp, temporary “head of the Hanging Committee” of the New York Independents.

The presentation of his urinal (baptized for the occasion as Fountain) was inscribed within a broad strategy which proposed nothing less than a redefinition of the artistic categories of the day. Duchamp knew that a work’s prestige, its mythical potential, is inversely proportionate to its degree of exhibition. The urinal’s (orchestrated) disappearance was a blessing. The work now exists only in the photograph taken of it by Stieglitz for the cover of a magazine called The Blind Man (edited by Duchamp himself).

Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny set off shockwaves in the field of art comparable to those caused by Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Following the example of its sanitary forerunner, the rabbit’s “prestige” grows in proportion to its invisibility. The animal, “created” by a French laboratory (the INRA at Jouy-en-Josas), was never exhibited in the public space for which it was conceived. On the other hand, its photograph did make the front page of the world’s most important newspapers. Like the urinal, the fluorescent rabbit raises questions that prompt us to redefine our own ideas and aesthetic criteria.

Despite its “fabrication” by a laboratory, it resists imprisonment within categories that are applicable to the readymade.

Deprived of the light source that provokes its luminousness, it resembles an ordinary bottle rack or a common snow shovel. At first sight, it corresponds to the surrealist definition of a readymade. Is it not, after all, an “object promoted to the dignity of a work of art solely through the choice of the artist”?

Taking into account the genetic manipulation to which it was subjected, closer examination of the animal might deem it an assisted readymade (according to Duchamp’s definition of this second category of readymades). Just as the 1916 Comb was expanded through the application of an inscription, the GFP rabbit’s genome was enhanced with a genetic sequence that distinguishes it from its congeners. Only the absence of the rabbit’s “déjà-là” prevents it from being strictly defined as a readymade.

From yet another perspective, Alba might be said to resemble With Hidden Noise or Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?. The former object is a ball of twine compressed between two brass plates upon which Duchamp has inscribed an esoteric text. The latter is made up of (among other things) marble cubes polished so as to resemble sugar cubes locked in a birdcage. No longer readymades at all, both objects required careful manufacturing; they are readymade only in name, and it is to them that Kac’s rabbit most closely bears a resemblance.

If the artistic intentionality that lies at the source of Alba's birth is enough to make it a work of art, it also begs another question – that of the artistic labeling of a living being. Modern art has long possessed something of a tradition in this respect. As far back as the 1960s, Manzoni was signing live models, even as Warhol was presenting himself on a pedestal and calling it “sculpture”. As for animals, Broodthaers included a live parrot in his exhibition Ne dites pas que je ne l’ai pas dit [Don’t say I didn’t say so] (1974, Anvers Wide White Space Gallery) and Nam June Paik used red fish in his Video Fish (1979, Collection National Museum of Modern Art – Centre Pompidou). More recently, Wim Delvoye has exhibited live, tattooed pigs; Maurizio Catalan, an ass; Bustamante, birds; and Ping, insects. Introducing animals in works of art is a response to a project that might be described as “endogenous” to art and its practices. During the early 1960s, in their enthusiastic rediscovery of Duchamp, Warhol and Manzoni contributed to the extension of the boundaries of art. Meanings internal to the practice and history of art are generally associated to recent works that resort to living beings. These animals are part of a critical or narrative discourse which aims to investigate the boundaries, meaning, and norms of art.

Eduardo Kac’s GFP Bunny is not inserted within any discursive or demonstrative sequence. It is not an element in an installation. It eludes both art and the codes that define it. Like Duchamp’s urinal, its meaning lies entirely within the enigma that constitutes its epiphany. While the Fountain appealed to categories which hitherto did not pertain to critical judgment, Alba, a pure scientific object, gives rise to questions beyond the (already expanded) boundaries of our aesthetic categories.

Only Eduardo Kac, the renowned artist whose idea it was, confers artistic status upon his Bunny.

To “judge” the albino rabbit implies addressing questions to science, to its purposes and ethical rules. A first, ingenuous question might be said to address the artistic future of science. Could it be that the scientist, armed with the framework of genetic engineering, is on his way to becoming an artist?

Jeremy Rifkin poses the question explicitly when he analyzes the thought of a generation of “postmodern” scholars. “They maintain that there is no definitive meta-narrative or universal truth, only a series of playful choices, socially constructed and culturally elaborated myths and texts. Life is perceived less as a journey of exploration than as a creative adventure.” Rifkin warns us about the figure of the artist-scientist, free from “external forces” and “universal truths”, for whom “[…] the creation is our creation”.

Is it not precisely the danger of a “eugenic future” that Kac`s rabbit reveals to us under the guise of a harmless rodent? Is not the GFP Bunny’s primary function to publicly invite critical analysis of the new situation described by Rifkin as “the concept of the natural world as a ‘creative and innovative progression’ and of living species as ‘works of art’ perfectly suited to the projects of a eugenic future”?

Rejected by members of the New York Independents, Fountain exposed the aesthetic standards of its time (the standards of a period that preceded art’s “philosophical submission” still linked to manual values of execution and originality). What does the imprisonment to which Alba was condemned reveal to us?

Scientific secrets? Certainly not. The use of fluorescent colored markers has been common practice in biology labs since the 1970s. The process by which Bunny was created may be studied in any elementary-level course on genetic engineering (Stanley Cohen of Stanford University and Herbert Boyer of the University of California performed the first transplant of distinct fragments of DNA as far back as 1973).

Could it be, then, a fear of releasing upon the public at large a monster capable of arousing an anxiety related to the memory of the ancient Chimera?

Bunny’s monstrosity seems harmless enough if compared to the goat-sheep chimera undertaken in 1984 by British researchers or, worse, to the “excessively hairy, arthritic, cross-eyed and lethargic” pig genetically “enhanced” with human growth hormones by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There is most decidedly nothing terrible about Alba if compared to the “Schwarzenegger pigs” (animals that mixed chicken and pig genes in the quest for greater muscle mass) or the new generations of industrial featherless chickens. Their appearance in the science columns of our newspapers creates nary a stir.

Duchamp’s readymades show us that the museum was the legitimating agency able to transmute any object into art.

What is the effect produced by transferring a scientific object onto the sphere of art – a transgenic rabbit, for instance? It, too, undergoes a transmutation. In the space of art, the object of science reveals both aesthetic potential and unexpected meaning. Its exhibition may be apprehended from a formal perspective (the bottle rack begins to resemble a sculpture by Pevsner; the urinal, a Brancusi). The transplanted object becomes invested with gratuitousness, with the transgressive values characteristic of modern art. To the observer of art, Alba defies formal comparison (is it more harmonious, expressionistic or pop than a stainless steel rabbit by Jeff Koons?)

Alba transposes science and its questions onto the territory of art. In the noblest sense, it participates in the political mutation of contemporary art. Just as Alice followed her white rabbit, let us all follow Alba to the wonderlands of a wonderful land where the rodents resemble ghosts from a Scottish castle and chicken have teeth.

Didier Ottinger is chief curator of the Centre Georges Pompidou – Musée National d’art moderne, Paris, where he has curated exhibitions on “The capital sins”, David Hockney, Philip Guston and Max Beckmann, among others.

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