Science, Vol 306, Issue 5694, 231, 8 October 2004  p. 231

Engaged with Sequences

A review by R. Scott Winters

Gene(sis) Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics

Robin Held, curator

Organized by the Henry Art Gallery, the University of Washington, Seattle, WA, in affiliation with the Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA.  At the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern  University, Evanston, IL, through 28 November 2004, CD-ROM catalogue, $24.95.


Eduardo Kac’s installation piece Genesis (1999) is a disturbing amusement.  Viewers activate an ultraviolet light to illuminate and mutate transgenic bacteria that contain a Bible-inspired artificial gene (1).  The work transcends its technology to address deeper issues of social responsability in the wake of the Human Genome Project.  Following a long tradition of contemporary art, Genesis both interprets and catalyzes discourse on humanity’s relationship with science and technology.

Artifacts from the Genesis installation are included in the traveling museum exhibition Gene(sis):

Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics, which appears at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Illinois, through 28 November.  (The Block Museum is the show’s fourth and final venue since its 2002 debut at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, Washington).  Ostensibly, the exhibition has three goals:  to present to lay audiences technological advances associated with the Human Genome Project, to focus attention on ethical issues raised by genomic research, and to promote an ongoing dialog concerning the impact of genomic research on our daily lives.

Gene(sis) comprises nearly 60 works contributed by 24 artists (individuals, ensembles, or organizations).  The pieces span media from photography and painting through installation and performance.  The exhibition is organized into four sections, each with its own general theme:

sequence (the genome as coded text), specimen (DNA as property or medical panacea), boundary (the erosion of species delimiters and the consequences of transgenics), and subject (how does one define human attributes, identity, or social constructs).  The pieces on display are augmented by a CD-ROM catalogue that also contains eight original essays, which are as varied as the works themselves.

Kac’s second contribution to the exhibit, GFP Bunny: Paris Intervention (1999 - present), concerns a rabbit, affectionately nicknamed “Alba” that is the world’s most  (in) famous object of transgenic art.

With the help of French geneticists, a variant of the bioluminescence gene from the jellyfish (Aequorea victoria) was spliced into an albino rabbit.  The result is a bunny that fluoresces in 488-nm light and redefines the boundaries of artistic media.  Although documents and relics related to her creation are displayed.  Alba remains in a French laboratory.  It is the absence of the piece’s archetype that makes the work so powerful.

GFP Bunny transcends experiment, chimera and installation-piece to herald a new form of socially engaged art.  It forces us to argue the delimiters of species, the nature of art, and the ethics of technology.  As such, it goes beyond the role of icon or index to become a symbol and signifier of a complex social predicate.  Few works of art approach this level of semiosis or catalyze as much debate as Alba.  However, with the Human Genome Project as both signifier and referent, one would expect artist-pundits to be exploring this shifting landscape of ethical thorns more vigorously.  Given its scale and ambition, the exhibit’s greatest weakness is inconsistency.  Some pieces are hackneyed and simply fail to rise above mere technophilia, novelty, or iconography.

Although it would be unrealistic to expect all pieces to have the impact of GFP Bunny, there are a number of other memorable highlights.  The Garden of Delights (1998) by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle seamlessly marries icon, aesthetic, and discourse.  This impressive installation is composed of 48 autoradiograph portraits arranged in 16 family triptychs.  By atomizing his subjects into genomic fragments, Manglano-Ovalle focuses our attention on the beauty of similarities and differences that exist among individuals while boundaries such as sex, race, and belief become indiscernible.

The most interesting “piece” is the exhibit itself:  program as meta-installation.  Curator Robin Held’s catalogue essay (2) chronicles the struggle to mount a unique and nontraditional exhibition.  After 9/11, the specters of bioterrorism and anthrax haunted the exhibition’s planning.  Gene(sis) was required to register as a “laboratory activity” with the National Institutes of Health, and works for inclusion had to pass a safety review process.  As a result of these restrictions, a number of exhibits had to be modified (e.g., dried blood removed) or abandoned (e.g., Critical Art Ensemble’s Cult of the New Eve).  Public safety issues transmogrified into an institutional perception of the public’s perception of public safety issues.

During the exhibition’s development, the University of Washington’s biosafety committee raised some interesting-even if irrelevant to their charge-questions (2):  Why would anyone want to do this?  Why is this art?  But prompting questions is the legacy that has made Gene(sis) successful.  The exhibition encourages social commentary by bridging the gap between the public and the complex social experiment of the Human Genome Project.  It provides us with a perspective, however fragmented, of the issues and implications of genomic research.  And, it facilitates our path toward bio-ethics via a new bio-aesthetics.


References and Notes

1.  Kac transcribed Genesis 1:28 into Morse code and then translated the message into a nucleic acid sequence.  The artist interprets the biblical passage as:  “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing.”

2.  R. Held, “Generating Gene(sis):  A Contemporary Exhibit for the Genomic Age.”  (The text of the essay on the CD-ROM differs slightly from that on the exhibit’s Web site).

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