NATURAL HISTORY OF THE ENIGMA


Eduardo Kac

The central work in the "Natural History of the Enigma" series is a plantimal, a new life form I created and that I call "Edunia", a genetically engineered flower that is a hybrid of myself and Petunia. The Edunia expresses my DNA exclusively in its red veins.

Developed between 2003 and 2008, and first exhibited from April 17 to June 21, 2009 at the Weisman Art Museum [1], in Minneapolis, "Natural History of the Enigma" also encompasses a large-scale public sculpture, a print suite, photographs, and other works.

The new flower is a Petunia strain that I invented and produced through molecular biology. It is not found in nature.  The Edunia has red veins on light pink petals and a gene of mine is expressed on every cell of its red veins, i.e., my gene produces a protein in the veins only [2]. The gene was isolated and sequenced from my blood. The petal pink background, against which the red veins are seen, is evocative of my own pinkish white skin tone. The result of this molecular manipulation is a bloom that creates the living image of human blood rushing through the veins of a flower.

Edunia

Eduardo Kac, Natural History of the Enigma, transgenic flower with artist's own DNA expressed in the red veins, 2003/2008. Collection Weisman Art Museum. Photo: Rik Sferra.

 

The gene I selected is responsible for the identification of foreign bodies. In this work, it is precisely that which identifies and rejects the other that I integrate into the other, thus creating a new kind of self that is partially flower and partially human.

 "Natural History of the Enigma" is a reflection on the contiguity of life between different species. It uses the redness of blood and the redness of the plant's veins as a marker of our shared heritage in the wider spectrum of life. By combining human and plant DNA in a new flower, in a visually dramatic way (red expression of human DNA in the flower veins), I bring forth the realization of the contiguity of life between different species.

Kac waters edunia

Eduardo Kac watering Edunia, 2009.  Photo: Joy Lengyel.

 

This work seeks to instill in the public a sense of wonder about this most amazing of phenomena we call “life”. The general public may have no difficulty in considering how close we truly are to apes and other non-human animals, particularly those with which it is possible to communicate directly, such as cats and dogs. However, the thought that we are also close to other life forms, including flora, will strike most as surprising.

While in the history of art one finds imaginative associations between anthropomorphic and botanical forms (as in the work of Archimboldo, for example), this parallel (between humans and plants) also belongs to the history of philosophy and to contemporary science. Advancing notions first articulated by Descartes, Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) already proposed in his book L'Homme Plante [Man a Plant] (1748) that “the singular analogy between the plant and animal kingdoms has led me to the discovery that the principal parts of men and plants are the same.” The preliminary sequencing of the human genome and that of a plant from the mustard family (Arabidopsis thaliana, in the journal Nature, December 14, 2000) have extended the artist's and the philosopher’s analogies beyond their wildest dreams, into the deepest recesses of the human and plant cells. Both have revealed homologies between human and plant genetic sequences.

Thus, the key gesture of "Natural History of the Enigma" takes place at the molecular level. It is at once a physical realization (i.e., a new life created by an artist, tout court) and a symbolic gesture (i.e., ideas and emotions are evoked by the very existence of the flower).

In order to make this work, I had a sample of my blood drawn and subsequently isolated a genetic sequence that is part of my immune system—the system that distinguishes self from non-self, i.e., protects against foreign molecules, disease, invaders – anything that is not me. To be more precise, I isolated a protein-coding sequence of my DNA from my Immunoglobulin (IgG) light chain (variable region) [3].

To create a Petunia with red veins in which my blood gene is expressed I made a chimeric gene composed of my own DNA and a promoter to guide the red expression only in the flower vascular system. In order to make my blood-derived DNA express only in the red veins of the Petunia, I used Professor Neil Olszewski’s CoYMV (Commelina Yellow Mottle Virus) Promoter, which drives gene expression only in plant veins. Professor Olszewski is in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. [4]

My IgG DNA is integrated into the chromosome of the Edunia. This means that every time that the Edunia is propagated through seeds my gene is present in the new flowers. See diagram here.

The sculpture that is part of "Natural History of the Enigma", entitled "Singularis", is a three-dimensional fiberglass and metal form measuring 14'4" (height) x 20'4" (length) x 8' 5" (width.) It contrasts the minute scale of the molecular procedure with the larger-than-life structure. Likewise, the work pairs the ephemeral quality of the living organism with the permanence of the large sculpture. The sculpture is directly connected to the flower because its form is an enlargement of unique forms found inside this invented flower. In other words, the sculpture is derived from the molecular procedure employed to create the flower [5]. In its hybridity, the sculpture reveals the proximity of our next of kin in the kingdom Plantae.

I used 3D imaging and rapid-prototyping to visualize this fusion protein as a tangible form. I created the visual choreography of the sculpture based on the flower's molecular uniqueness. The sculpture was created with a vocabulary of organic twists and turns, helices, sheets and other three-dimensional features common to all life. The sculpture is blood red, in connection to the starting point of the work (my blood) and the veinal coloration of the Edunia.

In anticipation of a future in which Edunias can be distributed socially and planted everywhere, I created a limited edition of Edunia seed packs containing actual Edunia seeds. In preparation for these seed packs, I made a set of six lithographs entitled "Edunia Seed Pack Studies".

The Edunia Seed Packs are hybrid objects that contain Edunia seeds. The embedded magnets keep the Seed Packs closed, while the viewer is invited to open them like books. In the text printed in the Edunia Seed Packs, in addition to Growing Notes I provide information about Exposure and Bloom Period. I also address the viewer directly: “A prolific bloomer, the Edunia is free flowering in the garden and weather tolerant. It is an annual that will grow ten to fourteen inches (25-30 cm) high with 4-inch red-veined wavy-edged blossoms. Good timing and uniformity in flowering guaranteed!”   

 Completing the "Natural History of the Enigma" series there are watercolors and photographs. In the eight diptychs that constitute the "Mysterium Magnum" watercolors I explore a theme that has always been of interest to me: the inextricable relationship between life and communication. These watercolors oscillate between evoking biomorphic patterns and sign systems. The "Plantimal" photographs were made directly from the first Edunias that germinated in Minneapolis in 2009. All Edunias featured in the photographs are genetically identical clones. Nevertheless, they all look quite different. The "Plantimal" photographs allow me to point out that all life, no matter how similar, is fundamentally different. All life is singular.

NOTES

1 - The exhibition was comprised of the actual Edunia, the complete "Edunia Seed Pack Studies" set of six lithographs, and a limited edition of six "Edunia Seed Packs" with actual Edunia seeds.

2 - The gene of mine I used is an IgG fragment extracted from my chromosome number 2. Immunoglobulin G (IgG) is a kind of protein that functions as an antibody. IgG is found in blood and other bodily fluids, and is used by the immune system to identify and neutralize foreign antigens. (An antigen is a toxin or other foreign substance that provokes an immune response in the body, such as viruses, bacteria and allergens.) More precisely, my DNA fragment is from my immunoglobulin kappa light chain (IGK) [see diagram]. In "Natural History of the Enigma", the fusion protein, produced exclusively in the red veins, is a fusion of my IgG fragment with GUS (beta glucuronidase, an enzyme that allowed me to confirm the vascular expression of the gene).

3 - For her assistance in drawing my blood, isolating my IgG and cloning it, I owe a debt of gratitude to Bonita L. Baskin, who was, at the time I carried out this work, the CEO of Apptec Laboratory Services, St. Paul, MN. The blood was drawn for "Natural History of the Enigma" on May 13th, 2004 in the premises of Apptec Laboratory Services.

4 - With the assistance of Professor Neil Olszewski, I obtained positive confirmation that my IgG protein was produced only in the Edunia veins by detecting the activity of the enzyme GUS (beta glucuronidase), which is fused to the IgG sequence. The detection was achieved through a staining technique.

5 - The sculpture's form is an invented protein composed of human and plant parts. The human part is a fragment of my Immunoglobulin (IgG) light chain (variable region). The plant component is from the Petunia's ANTHOCYANIN1 (AN1), responsible for red pigmentation in the flower. More precisely, AN1 is a transcription factor that controls genes encoding the enzymes that produce the red pigments.


The Natural History of the Enigma series

The making of Natural History of the Enigma

Exhibiton photographs

Edunia's PCR

 

Special Thanks

At the University of Minnesota, I would like to extend a very special thanks to Dean Robert Elde, College of Biological Sciences; Jane Blocker, Associate Professor of Art History; Jeffrey Kahn, Director, Center for Bioethics and Professor of Medicine; Jenny Schmid, Assistant Professor of Printmaking; Neil Anderson, Associate Professor of Flower Breeding and Genetics, Department of Horticultural Science; Douglas H. Ohlendorf, Professor of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics, College of Biological Sciences/Medical School; Rebecca Krinke, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Landscape Architecture. At the Weisman Art Museum, thanks to Lyndel King, Director and Chief Curator; Diane Mullin, Associate Curator; and Craig Amundsen, Public Art Curator and program manager. In my studio I'd like to acknowledge Wonbin Yang. Also, a very special thanks to Shelly L. Willis, who was, when I started to develop "Natural History of the Enigma", the Public Art Coordinator at the Weisman Art Museum, and now is the Public Art Administrator for the city of Sacramento, CA.


Selected Bibliography


WINNER OF THE 2009 GOLDEN NICA AWARD


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