More science than self-expression

NYC exhibit explores genetics through art

Who knew? Ever since C.P. Snow's famous 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," where he placed scientists and arts practitioners at opposite poles, we've assumed the twain shall never meet. Now an art exhibition inspired by discoveries in genetics at Exit Art gallery in New York City's SoHo refutes Snow's claim that "a gulf of mutual incomprehension" divides science and art.

In the show "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution," through Oct. 28, 39 artists display works in a variety of mediums - photographs, paintings, sculpture, computer works, and mixed-media installations - that are almost more science projects or social commentary than self-expression.

Curators Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric checked out works by more than 150 artists. "If it had a beaker in the artwork, we looked at it," Ms. Kismaric said. They discovered a subculture of artists exploring implications of the genetic revolution.

As Eric S. Lander, director of the Whitehead Institute/M.I.T. Center for Genome Research, said of the Human Genome Project in a panel discussion in New York Sept. 20, "Over the next century, this will transform society."

Artists function like canaries in a coal mine, giving early warning of toxic fumes. In this case, the artists question the consequences (privacy and identity issues) of genetic engineering, such as cloning and patenting genes. In a press conference at the exhibition, artist Frank Moore summed up the need to confront issues arising from the genetic revolution: "It's important to yoke our knowledge with a sense of ethics and history to make wisdom."

The works in "Paradise Now" examine the benefits and abuses of our growing power to manipulate biology. As Snow said of technology: "It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other."

Among the "great gifts" is the potential to "improve" nature and feed the world through breeding pest-resistant plants or meatier animals. Alexis Rockman's painting "The Farm" shows how agribusiness might transform future foodstuffs. He pictures a featherless chicken with six wings and rectangular zucchini designed to be packaging-friendly. In this version of "American Gothic," the old-fashioned farm becomes an artificial pharm.

Images of how biotechnology shapes the natural world abound. In "Smile Tomato," Laura Stein forced a tomato to grow in a mold, producing a smiley face.

In Eva Sutton's interactive computer piece "Hybrids," a viewer can create the perfect organism by mixing body modules - attaching, for instance, a camel's head to a grasshopper torso and bird legs.

The opportunity to be a supreme creator (dare we say "playing God"?) is not so far removed from what one artist has done. Eduardo Kac's piece "Genesis" displays bacteria with synthetic DNA, created by him and by computer users, who log on to his Web site, thereby shining a light on the bacteria, causing it to mutate. (Mr. Kac recently commissioned French scientists to create "Alba," a white rabbit infused with luminescent genes from a jellyfish. The rabbit glows green in blue light.)

Several of the artists question the merger of science and commerce. Christy Rupp displays plastic deli containers with labels like "Greed Beans." Frank Moore's painting "Oz" is dense with metaphorical narratives skeptical of DNA dollars. A heap of consumer goods is topped by a pianist, suggesting a link between materialism and the Holy Grail of producing genes for genius. A beanstalk, out of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" fable, sprouts from a mound of gold coins.

Other artists produced portraits of their subjects' DNA rather than renderings of their external appearance, suggesting we are our genetic makeup rather than the sum of our experience. Steve Miller and Kevin Clarke began their respective portraits of Isabel Goldsmith and James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, with blood samples.

Mr. Miller's four-panel electron micrograph of Goldsmith's dividing chromosomes is silkscreened in Day-Glo colors like a Warhol celebrity portrait. Mr. Clarke's version of Watson superimposes letters from his genetic code - A, T, C, G - on photographs of empty laboratory shelving, twisted like the famous double helix.

Rebecca Howland's fragile ink drawings, paired with written musings, are the most low-tech. In one drawing, Ms. Howland scribbles the question she asked her Buddhist teacher: "If they clone me, does my spirit come too?" Answer: "No, same apartment, different tenant."

'Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution,' is on display at New York's Exit Art through Oct. 28. For more information log on to www.exitart.org and www.geneart.org

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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