Wed Oct 4, 2006 8:41 AM ET

Green bunny's creator says medium is not the message

By Sebastian Tong

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Mutant rabbits, robotic bats and petri-dish bacteria sound more like the objects of science fiction than art but contemporary artist Eduardo Kac says audiences should not fixate on the technology behind his works.

A leading figure in bio-art, an art movement that uses living tissue and robotics as a medium, Kac wants his audience to think about how technology transforms the way people relate to each other.

"I have no interest in science or the business of technology. I am interested in the poetry and philosophy of what life means," the Rio-born artist told Reuters in a phone interview from Paris.

Kac, 44, has embedded messages in bacteria and used robotics in his art works. He made international headlines six years ago with a genetically engineered, glow-in-the-dark rabbit.

The artwork, "GFP Bunny", was named after the green fluorescent protein of a Pacific jellyfish which was injected into the egg of an albino rabbit.

Because of a dispute with the French laboratory that produced her, Kac never got to keep the animal.

But the rabbit, which glowed green under a blue light, sparked a furor over the ethics of genetic engineering and has inspired cultural references ranging from children's books to a novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

"The response was extremely varied -- there were people who were outraged and there were those who were intrigued," Kac said.


Kac's latest work -- "Specimen of Secrecy About Marvelous Discoveries" -- is among nearly 100 works of mainly conceptual art at Singapore's first biennale, which runs until November 12.

The city-state is a fitting venue for Kac's work.

Singapore has spent millions of dollars building up a biomedical industry and has become one of the world's leading centers for stem cell research, attracting luminaries such as Alan Colman, the British scientist whose team cloned Dolly, the world's most famous sheep.

Kac's biennale installation comprises of six plexi-glass frames -- which the Chicago-based artist calls "biotopes" -- containing a sludge of soil and living micro-organisms which create patterns as they recycle nutrients to sustain themselves.

Kac said the "ecological community" within each biotope -- which requires light and periodic watering -- evokes the earth seen from a distance in space and fits with his idea of creating works of art that are literally alive.

"In the 60s, some artists would bring plants into the gallery, but bio-art is about manipulating, controlling and transforming the plant in order to say something," he said.


Rather than being alive themselves, some of Kac's works involve an imitation of life.

For a 1999 installation, Kac made a robotic bat and surrounded it with 300 real Egyptian fruit bats in a cave in the Rotterdam zoo.

Viewers could experience the behavior of the other bats through the robot, which fooled its flesh-and-blood counterparts by emitting sonar waves.

"I am fascinated with animal emotion and cognition because it opens a window into the heart and mind of a fellow animal. Understanding that animal, we also understand something about ourselves," said Kac.

Fumio Nanjo, artistic director of the Singapore Biennale 2006, says Kac's technical confidence enables him to create complex and challenging works.

"It is not just conceptual with him. He is confident handling the genetic material and hardware," Nanjo said.

Kac, who claims he was the first person to have a microchip implanted in his body in a 1997 art performance, said he wants to explore the ambiguities of the future expressed in the promise of technology.

"I am using the very instruments that we find in daily life and subverting them. But the medium is secondary. What is a Picasso painting? Is it just oil on canvas? It is not. It is a lifetime, a vision; it's poetry in motion, it is everything that an artist puts in his work," he said.

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