Originally published in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Saturday, April 6, 2002.
Contemporary artists take a mostly playful look at the
consequences of genetic exploration
Saturday, April 6, 2002
By Regina Hackett
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER ART CRITIC
In Catherine Wagner's photo, a small pool of light breaks through
darkness to surround a translucent glass bottle beaded with
sweat. Across its front, a label made of masking tape bears the
scrawled words, "Definitely Not Sterile."
Opening today at the University of Washington's Henry Art
Gallery, "Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human
Genomics" is a new look at the messy business of being alive.
Organized by Henry curator Robin Held, the show features 28
U.S. and European artists who are responding directly to the
Human Genome Project.
Started in the United States in 1990, the now worldwide project
is charged with identifying all 30,000 genes in human DNA,
determining their chemical sequences and addressing the ethical,
legal, medical and social issues likely to arise when key biological
codes hit the street.
This is well-worn territory for sci-fi writers, who for more than a
century have been imagining misuses of such knowledge. Will
we create androids that dream of electric sheep (Philip Dick),
make monsters (Mary Shelley), or erase ourselves at will, to see
what others are doing when they think we aren't there (H.G.
While the Genome Project could prove key to eradicating
diseases, couldn't it also help smooth the rough body blueprint,
leaving us less interesting? The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke
was reluctant to seek treatment for depression, saying, "If my
devils leave me, might not my angels?"
Visual artists are weighing in on this subject as never before, but
if they're doomsayers, they didn't make Held's final cut. She likes
artists who begin with something resembling scientific method
and end with oddity, sly wit and wonder.
Quite a few comics slipped in to make science ridiculous,
including Dario Robleto, who ground into powder his mother's
soul records, suggesting that "soul" can be distilled from vinyl
and taken in pill form in the morning, with juice.
Savvy cartoonists (courtesy of New York's Creative Time)
contributed art on paper coffee cups, including Roz Chast with
"Genetic Engineering Hits a Snag" (the product of genius genes
gets failing grades and won't clean her room). I love the bold,
alarmist graphics on Larry Miller's cup, sure to interest the
anxious: "Who owns your genes? Good question ... Copyright
Your DNA (you left some on this cup)."
Unfortunately, the Henry couldn't get a sponsor to pay for mass
production of the cups (roughly $15,000), or we'd each be able
to take a few home, part of the give-away-art-in-museums
movement begun in the early 1990s by the irreplaceable Felix
Miller contributed more to this show than a paper cup. He's
hoping that genetic engineering can change not only the future
but the past. To this end, he contributed and persuaded his
mother to contribute blood, fingernails, hair and skin samples to
his visual art bank. Only when science can use these leavings to
re-create his twin sister, who died at birth, can it be opened.
Using oil and encaustic, painter Jaq Chartier improvises on the
theme of DNA sequences, turning biological code into bare,
ruined choirs, bright wreckage adrift in painterly fog. Inigo
Manglano-Ovalle's use of similar sequences is far more literal. He
photographs them, delivering abstractions with a jittery bite.
Both Chartier's and Manglano-Ovalle's work looks abstract but
isn't. Each is a map of identity. In the face of such maps, such
exacting behavioral predictors, will the concept of free will wither
Susan Robb believes in the leap of faith. She poses herself certain
questions -- such as, "What is the chemical formula for falling in
love?" -- and feels her way to metaphoric answer by creating
sculptures out of moss, cake, spit, Play-Doh, pipe cleaners,
chocolate or whatever strikes her.
Once these objects satisfy, she photographs them with a macro
lens to create what look like internal landscapes. Instead of
recording her procedures (science), she destroys them, leaving
the prints to stand alone (art).
Eduardo Kac's bunny is part jellyfish. Under ultraviolet light, it
glows green. He developed it with a French geneticist and
appears with it in posters in this show. How the bunny is bearing
up under the burden of being a lurid light source isn't Kac's
concern. Far more interesting is Kac's "Genesis," a large oval of
light projecting onto a darkened gallery wall and teaming with
Catherine Chalmers' photographs of genetically engineered mice
give these pawns of medical science a deeply disturbing dignity.
Equally unnerving are Orit Raff's photos of absences, the elusive
remains of human presence in empty rooms.
"Gene(sis)" doesn't end in the gallery. Visitors intrigued by
Shawn Brixey and Richard Rinehart's giant thumbprint can visit
a version on the Internet, where it serves as a maze. Moving
through it, you can leave code behind, protecting you from a
mutating Minotaur that seeks you out. Why stick with art or
bother with science when the exalted realm of game culture
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