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|Special Issue - March 2004|
de Menezes : Poetry and art
'I first began to investigate biology when I realised
that it was a field I knew very little about. It was a time when important
decisions were being taken about transgenic food, genetic engineering and
the use of stem cells. I decided to learn by immersing myself in the latest
developments in research and, in so doing, I discovered extraordinary possibilities
for artistic expression,' says Marta de Menezes, a painter born in Lisbon.
She joined the laboratory for evolutionary biology at Leiden University
in the Netherlands where a team of researchers, headed by Professor Paul
Brakefield, were working on butterflies. The result of this collaboration
was Nature? De Menezes changed the patterns on one of the wings
of an insect about to be born by pricking the chrysalis at very precise
points. Butterflies treated in this way produced one wing with a pattern
modified by human intervention and the other with the natural pattern.
These works, obtained without genetic engineering and therefore non-transmissible,
were deliberately transitory.
The DNA molecule the billions of nucleotides just a tiny proportion of which is enough to contain all our genetic information has always held a fascination for de Menezes, for whom they represent a kind of internal universe. This inspired her series entitled ëInner cloudsí. By precipitating an individual's DNA in a test tube, she obtained an opaque mass which she perceived as that personís 'inner cloud'.
Gessert : Nature and solitude
'In the early 1990s, I was chiefly interested in auto-organised
patterns, such as the spread of ink in non-coated paper. Working with living
organisms, which are supremely auto-organised, was a logical extension
of this approach. I have always been fascinated by plants, for example,
as aesthetic objects as well as life forms,' says George Gessert.
He practices a biotech art in which technology plays very little part. He cultivates, crosses and selects flowers without any contact with scientific institutions. A former student of horticulture, he has an extensive knowledge of biology, chemistry and entomology. He views gardening almost as a fine art and works in the tradition of the German Edward Steichen who exhibited his hybrid flowers at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1936.
Gessert also makes a very specific selection, deliberately creating flowers unlikely to meet with much success on the horticultural market. Adopting a kind of 'Darwinism in reverse', he takes up a stance in opposition to the prevailing taste. His number one enemy is kitsch.
His work can seem purely aesthetic and in fact seeks to be precisely that, but it also includes reflections on death, time and eugenics. Gessert never forgets this sinister use made of genetics during the XXth century. 'We can only fully appreciate a work of art if we recognise the issues that it raises,' he explains.
Tratnik: ambiguous presences
'It was the desire to capture a certain presence of
a living organism, of a body, that brought me to bioart,' writes the Slovenian
painter Polona Tratnik in her installation entitled 37°C. The presentation
consisted of three 'aquariums' each containing small wax and latex statues
covered in a skin cell culture taken from the artist at the Ljubljana Cell
Type Differentiation Centre.
Before using this cell culture, Polona Tratnik already sought to provoke the strange sensation a mixture of attraction and repugnance one experiences when touching the skin of a stranger. At that time, she was working with latex as a first step towards using laboratory skin, a tissue that is both artificial and living.
Science? She uses it, and that is all. 'I am much more interested in
provoking these emotions than in becoming a scientist.'
Orienté Objet : Frontiers and symbols
'Hybridisation' and 'poésie'. These are the
two key words for Art Orienté Objet (AOO), the Parisian duo Marion
Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin. 'The basis of all our work is the
consciousness of the living creature and its manipulation by science and
society,' they explain. Logically, it is themselves which they 'manipulate'
to produce their strange creations.
Born into a family of researchers and herself a scientist by training, Laval-Jeantet has had to 'reconcile her sense of the logic of reality subject to physical laws with that of the world of vision.' The duo have frequent meetings with scientific teams in the belief that it is impossible to envisage the mental, social and ecological impact of biotechnologies without a command of the tools. As a result, their work becomes the focus of an extremely precise and articulate discourse.
'The general public is shocked to see hybrids of our skin, but, in fact, what shocks is not so much the skin culture even a hybrid one as the fact of imagining the kind of world that such techniques imply,' believes Marion Laval-Jeantet. Her final comment? 'Art will have proved revelatory, and increasing our awareness of any issue is generally beneficial,' she concludes.
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