Boston Globe, 4/7/2002, p. A32.
Art ponders genome implications
Fantasy used to stir debate
By Deidtra Henderson, Globe Correspondent, 4/7/2002
SEATTLE - One wall of a darkened exhibit room bears a biblical passage. Below,
the saying is expressed as the dots and dashes of the Morse code. And below that,
it's translated into a series of A's, G's, C's and T's, the genetic code of life.
In the center of the room, Chicago artist Eduardo Kac had the genetic code infused
into bacteria that populate a petri dish. Aided by an overhead light and a UV light,
that growing transgenic life form appears on an adjacent wall as a pale blue dot
that teams with lively bluish and greenish blobs.
To Kac, the fact that the genetic code is plastic and malleable means it can't
possibly be ''the'' secret of life.
Kac can't say whether audiences will get that message when they stroll through
the exhibit, ''Gene(sis:) Contemporary Art Explores Human Genetics,'' which
made its debut yesterday at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington.
But he is sure that his work will prompt questions. ''It's a way to create a
context,'' Kac said. ''They'll read and think and discuss.''
The touring show consists of artworks created in direct response to the Human
Genome Project. The race to decipher humans' genetic code has been touted as a
giant scientific leap toward such benefits as eliminating genetic ailments and
boosting agricultural yields. But the project has also heightened fear about the
spread of transgenic beings and crops far from their intended range, and has raised
ethical questions about whether cloning should extend to humans.
Curator Robin Held would like nothing more than for the 50-plus pieces in the
exhibit to nurture debate about social, ethical, and cultural implications of human
The works force an intersection of art and science to raise questions such as, Who
owns your genes? Should transgenic animals, like a bunny that glows green under
cetain lights, be allowed to live and breed outside the lab? If cloning were possible,
one artist asks in a piece created by melting Motown records, might he be
recreated with a touch more soul?
The standard stuff of scientific labs - petri dishes, gel electrophoresis, and the
fingerprints created when fragments of DNA are spliced by enzymes and coaxed,
by electrical current, to move through that gel - have become the tinker toys of
Frogs floating in preservative fluid take a fashionable twist as they wear
hand-crocheted pants of many colors.
Elsewhere, photographer Catherine Wagner has picked up the techniques of Ansel
Adams, though her large black-and-white photographs explore scientific
landscapes, such as freezers set at minus-86 degrees where human genetic material
is stored, and clear yogurt-like containers that reveal the thin line of separation
between human and fruit fly DNA.
Supersized lab mice dominate another wall in 30-inch by 40-inch portraits by
Catherine Chalmers simply labeled with a specialized trait, like ''Obese,'' ''Curly
Tail,'' or ''Blind Sterile.''
''A powerful statement can be made if you go in the trenches and you appropriate
the same [scientific] tools,'' said Kac, an associate professor of the School of the
Art Institute of Chicago. ''And what you say with those tools is a completely
different diction, a completely different message, a completely different everything.
You show that these tools can be instruments of fantasy.
''The tools are invested with ideological value. They come from a certain view of
the world, but these are not issues that science is interested in talking about. ... This
is the job of the artist. What artists do is the social awareness, this inventiveness,
In Gene(sis), there are no works depicting the future as a blissful world. Nor does
it contain Alexis Rockman's sweeping and disturbing transgenic landscapes filled
with dire results of human tinkering: oddly shaped animals and oversized plants.
''A lot of the press about the Human Genome Project has been very polarized,''
said Held, the curator. ''It's been sort of `thumbs up' with such utopian projects, or
it's, `Ohmigod, we're all going to hell in a handbasket,''' she said. ''I was more
interested in the artists' perspectives, new angles, ambiguities, ambivalences. In
some cases, the artists are getting the science wrong, but for interesting, creative
The cutting-edge show hit a few snags. Seattle-based Starbucks wouldn't go for a
plan to inscribe cups with questions like ''Who owns your DNA?'' aimed at
prompting debate over a cup of joe.
Still, noted geneticist Mary-Claire King, a University of Washington professor,
applauds the artists for their innovation.
''This exhibit is having fun with genetics. It's saying `Gosh, look at all the bizarre
and unexpected and whimsical ways we can take the information,''' King said.
''By looking at the whimsical ways artists see the world I live in, it's freeing. It's
This story ran on page A32 of the Boston Globe on 4/7/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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