Originally published in the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger, Volume 9, Number 15, Dec. 30, 1999 - Jan. 05, 2000. On the Web: http://www.thestranger.com/1999-12-30/art.html.
9 No. 15, Dec 30 - Jan 5 2000
END OF ART
Chess-Playing Corpses and Glowing Mutts Bring Art to Its Natural Conclusion in Austria
by Charles Mudede
SOME BELIEVE THAT ART ended in 1987 with Jean-Michel Basquiat, who represented the New York art scene's last attempt to breath new life into moribund modernity, and that it failed (like Basquiat's life failed him) because the condition was already too grave to hope for recovery. I contend that it is about to come to an end in Berlin or Chicago. These two big cities (one known for its fallen wall, the other for its strong winds) have two artists who are pushing art to the limit, to its terrible conclusion.
One artist is a doctor by the name of Gunther von Hagens (who lives in Berlin); the other is an art professor by the name of Eduardo Kac (who lives in Chicago). I had an opportunity to hear them speak in Linz, Austria (Hitler's birth town) during the Ars Electronica Festival this fall. I was invited to this festival to speak on the impact that biotechnology has had on recent science fiction films, and delivered my lecture just after these two men made shocking presentations which had appalled many in the auditorium. "How on earth can you do such a thing?" "Das ist böse!" "What in God's name are you doing?" exclaimed repelled attendees at these two impossible artists -- and didn't someone faint? I can't recall the exact details of all that happened during their lectures, but one thing is certain: One of these artists is going to lead the world to the end of art, the end of Western history.
The first artist, Eduardo Kac -- a rotund Assistant Professor of Art and Technology at the Art Institute in Chicago -- proposed, during his dry and rather long talk, that making art out of living material was the next great step forward in his field. He called it "Transgenic Art," which is "a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique living beings." Kac has a team of brilliant geneticists to help him realize his unusual art projects, one of which is to make a fluorescent "K9." He plans to do this by introducing the green fluorescent protein of the Pacific Northwest Jellyfish (Aequorea Victoria) into the DNA of a dog, causing its fur to glow in the dark.
I had dinner with Kac the night after his unreal lecture, a lecture which caused many in the audience to raise their voices against him and some to storm out of the hall. We sat with his two brainy geneticists and a brilliant lawyer by the name of Lori Andrews, who has written a book called The Clone Age. The man on the grand piano was playing "Autumn Leaves" at my request. I ordered fish and white wine, and after some pleasantries about this and that, I finally asked Kac, "Why a dog?"
"I don't like to use the word 'dog' or 'pet.' I prefer to call them 'family members,'" Kac said, as he cut into his lamb chop. "When we call them pets we are denying them the important role they play in family life. It is like calling them a slave; it is a way for excluding them from the family core."
"If a house was burning," Lori Andrews asked in her brilliant lawyerly way, "would it be a tough Sophie's choice about whether to save one's daughter or the Chihuahua? Would one leave their estate to GFP-K9 (the name of the glowing dog Kac wants to create) instead of his other relatives? Should one be criminally prosecuted if they put that family member to sleep?"
"Yes," I said, agreeing with the lawyer. "And isn't it worse to make a fluorescent family member, rather than a fluorescent dog?"
"I want people to understand that I'm making a fluorescent K9 out of respect, not because I want to humiliate it. This is art and so I appreciate the K9 as a work of art."
The next speaker that afternoon was Gunther von Hagens, who made a case for using "plastinated" human corpses to make art. This was the other end of art; the one that used the dead instead of the living. He explained that "with Gestaltplastination (the process he invented to preserve human tissue), a new face is bestowed upon death. It takes on an aesthetic-instructive liveliness, which endows the conception of death with a certain conciliatory nature." Hagens has close to 50 of these dead statues, all of them friends and fans of his work who, when still alive, signed their bodies over to him. Now they are skinned or sliced or have their insides opened and exposed to the thousands who attend Hagen's sold-out shows in Germany and Austria.
Some of Hagens' scary sculptures were on display during the festival, and when I first saw one I just stared at it, not knowing what to think. The statue (the dead man) sat in the middle of a large and curving hallway; it was sitting in a chair on a raised platform, hands on a table, playing chess against a large robotic arm. Its bulging eyes stared at the chess pieces as if it were deep in thought, wondering about its next crucial move.
Later, after his talk -- which had hundreds of angry people denouncing him as a fraud, as insane, as sick -- I saw Hagens in the hallway near his chess-playing corpse. He was talking to a group of admirers or enemies, and though I wanted to hear what he was saying -- there was still 15 minutes before my far less controversial talk began -- I was too scared to approach him. This was a man who had carved nearly 50 fans and friends into art, a man who loved to be close to the dead. I didn't want to be near him out of an instinctual fear of death. Or was I lying to myself? Maybe it wasn't death that I feared. Maybe I feared myself. I didn't want to talk to him because, in a weak moment, I might suddenly fall to his feet, saying, "I want to be a work of art when I'm dead. Please plastinate me, herr doktor. Turn me into a permanent statue in death. Pull out my teeth and replace them with better ones (in life I had such bad teeth!). And then, herr doktor, put my dead body next to a high bar table, silver in color, and let me stand there holding in one hand a martini glass, and in the other a bottle of expensive Grey Goose vodka. Let me be frozen in this happy moment forever."
After years of wondering what the final point and meaning of art would be, we now know for sure. The truth is out there, in Chicago and Berlin. Instead of an imitation of life, for Eduardo Kac, art has become life. Instead of being a defense against the movement of time and the permanence of death, for Gunther von Hagens, art has become death. After this point, there is nowhere else to go -- we have made it to the end of art.
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