Blinded with science. Exit Art unravels DNA's double helix
By Tim Griffin
How would you like to have a dog that glows in the dark? There's one artist who may be happy to oblige: At a recent international conference on art and technology, Eduardo Kac unveiled his proposal to splice the genes of an ordinary dog with those of a fluorescent jellyfish found in the Pacific Northwest. The result? A phosphorescent pooch.
In one sense, it's an idea that's strikingly in accord with our turn of the century: It sounds like the ultimate in contemporary accessorizing, a millennial spin on the 19th-century Parisian dream of walking bejeweled turtles along the boulevards. But at the conference, all the concept of the glowing pup did was generate furious discussion: Is the process feasible? (Actually, such cross-breeding has already been accomplished; many ubiquitous fruits and vegetables are genetically altered.) Would it harm the canine? (Certainly no more than traditional breeding, which produces bulldogs with short legs and bad hearts.) But is the process moral? Is it really art? Well, that's when things got a little tricky, opening up a whole host of questions that--what with the human genome fully mapped, and Dolly the cloned sheep suddenly showing the effects of unanticipated accelerated aging--seem more timely than ever. Exit Art's sprawling "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution," organized by Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman, revolves around just these issues.
We're most familiar with these ideas from watching moody sci-fi fantasies: Harrison Ford chasing down replicants in Blade Runner; Uma Thurman romantically passing a single strand of hair to Ethan Hawke in Gattaca so that he'll be able to analyze her DNA and learn her projected lifespan. "Paradise Now" doesn't go in for the same retrofuturistic glamour, or speak to the same bittersweet malaise. Rather, the exhibition itself is a sort of gene splice: part art gallery, part laboratory, part biology classroom. A computer printout of the human genome sequence hangs from ceiling to floor, piling into a thick stack, to dramatize the staggering achievement of mapping chromosomes. Nearby, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's gender-selected cryogenic sperm bank features two small tanks filled with liquid nitrogen to preserve the donor sperm and eggs inside; both are lit by extremely bright, clinically fluorescent lights that wash across the gallery. Way in back, artist Brandon Ballengée is breeding frogs in a collection of plastic water tanks; his aim is to match the traits of an extinct species from the Congo region. Among the more traditional works, Bryan Crockett contributes a massive marble statue of a lab rat titled Ecce Homo. Then there's Alexis Rockman's humorous, brightly colored painting The Farm, which features an iconography of nature mutated by human hands: A chicken sprouts three wings while a pig supplies organs for transplant.
If all of this leaves you feeling somewhat cold, well, it's natural for science to have that effect; but good art can make the chill reach down to the bone, often without any obvious reason. The real weakness of this show is that so much of the art diagrams its ideas; being so involved in hard science of tomorrow, it mostly bypasses that all-important soft science of today: psychology. The curators should have thought of including something along the lines of Damien Hirst's infamous pharmacy retooled with a fly zapper, for example. (Come to think of it, if Hirst could have created Dolly the sheep, don't you think he would have?) Matthew Barney's goop-laden hybrid creatures from his "Cremaster" series would have also fit in, speaking as they do to the age of genetic engineering while manifesting the emotional vertigo of being alive at a time when corporations battle with public interests over the profit potential of genetics.
Instead, the show consistently zeroes in on the notion that any natural phenomenon can be read as information, with different species and individuals representing nothing more than various, mutable kinds of code. Which is, of course, chilling enough: Kac himself is here with work that translates a sentence from Genesis into the genetic structure of a bacteria, which any visitor can then alter by exposing it to light via remote control on the Internet. Steve Miller's Genetic Portrait of Isabel Goldsmith eschews any flattering image of his subject for a series of views of her chromosomes that are blandly classified and numbered in laboratory notations by geneticist Pat Heslop-Harrison. And Nancy Burson, in what's probably the show's most seriocomic work, obliterates one of the traditional arbiters of identity with The Human Race Machine, a photo-booth?like contraption inside of which anyone can scan his or her face and modify it to appear, for example, Caucasian, African-American or Asian--the point being that there is no gene for race, and that the DNA for any two individuals is almost 100 percent identical.
Information, of course, can be bought and sold, and many of the artists here seem to laugh nervously at the idea by adopting ironic corporate poses. Larry Miller, for example, remembering that animals were patented genetically as early as the '80s, copyrights individuals' DNA as his art: Here, he copyrights fellow artist Alison Knowles's gene pool with a certificate, photographs and samples of her tissue and blood. ®TMark, an Internet art group that sells stocks to finance its guerrilla tactics against massive corporations, offers proposals like the Biological Property Fund and the Queer Creationist Campaign for a "more perfect queer race." And Gene Genies Worldwide offers a portion of its Creative Gene Harvest Archive, which has little vials containing snips of hair from many of the most creative minds in the world--from Stephen Hawking to I.M. Pei--to figure into personality design in the future.
And that is, after all, what's ultimately at stake in the genetic revolution: what it will mean to be human, or "natural," and how our deepest sense of self will change. "Paradise Now" mostly skims the surface of those stakes, staying at an informative, critical distance. Ultimately, the show leaves you wondering about the gene pools that serve as palettes for corporate artists, and about those massive clinical garrets that we read about only occasionally, when some genetic masterpiece shows its face on the cover of our morning newspaper.
"Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution" is on view at Exit Art through October 28 (see Soho).
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