A visitor to the Museum of Arts and Design, known as MAD, told chief curator David McFadden, "I have a title for your show: 'Natural History Goes Mad.' " A hint of the mad scientist's vivarium hovers over the exhibition officially titled "Dead or Alive" on display until Oct. 24. The materials from which more than 30 contemporary artists from all over the world make their art are from formerly living things, such as silkworm cocoons, porcupine bones, octopus tentacles, and cockroach wings.
Creating art from birds, bugs, and bones is apparently all the rage. "There could easily have been 100 artists in this show," says Mr. McFadden, even though in seeking nature-based art he excluded wood, basketry, fiber, and stone. Artists, often in the vanguard in expressing social and cultural concerns, have turned to science and natural history.
With nature so much in the news, as volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes disrupt humans' best-laid plans, these artists look prescient in examining our ties to the mother ship. There are so many skulls and bones in the exhibition, a pirate would feel right at home, but what do they express?
"There may be a kind of reassurance in this show," McFadden says. "One of the fears embedded in human culture is the fear we're not in control and we're being manipulated." He adds, "These artists have reversed the tables because they've clearly put themselves back in control of an aspect of nature."
This impulse to impose order on nature's randomness is evident in Claire Morgan's sculpture "On Top of the World" (2009) consisting of hundreds of bluebottle flies suspended on nylon threads in the form of a cube. Helen Altman also makes use of a minimalist grid, hanging 49 skulls sculpted from aromatics such as lavender, cloves, and cinnamon on the wall in "Spice Skulls" (2008-09). Instead of the stench of decay, a pleasant fragrance emanates from these emblems of mortality, but only if you approach closely enough to inhale.
Curator Lowery Sims says there's "definitely" an ecological mind-set at work. The exhibition by mostly young artists reflects a generational shift toward using natural material. "These are the kids," McFadden says, "who grew up in a world where everyone talked about global issues, recycling, and natural resources."
Their art expresses concern for the environment, as in Lucia Madriz's floor installation of red and black beans, corn, and rice called "Gold Fever" (2010). Two skeletal hands hold a seed. Banners spell out "Modified Seed" and "Contaminated Food," a jab at agribusinesses that sell sterile seeds. Christy Rupp uses chicken bones discarded after fast-food meals to make skeletal models of extinct birds like the dodo or great auk. "Artists can ask questions," Ms. Rupp says, "but they don't have to deliver answers." In her reconstructions, she asks us to think about how consumption leads to oblivion and the futility of trying to resurrect what's lost.
In overtly political works, there's always a risk of preaching. "The difference between conventional political art and these artists," Ms. Sims says, "is that they hold onto their aesthetic sense, which makes it more powerful. You get seduced in, and when you confront the reality of the message, it makes you think."
The exquisite craft of these works makes them very seductive visually and in a tactile sense. Dutch artists Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta start with dandelion puffs, removing each seed head from the flower, then gluing them around a tiny LED bulb. They arrange the battery-powered flowers on the wall in a pattern like a starry constellation called "Fragile Future 3" (2010), simulating the dispersal of seeds. Kate MccGuire's "Discharge" (2010) is equally appealing to the eye. Thousands of lowly pigeon feathers erupt from the floor into a giant waterspout like a silvery, cresting wave.
Many of the pieces are site-specific, like Xu Bing's "Background Story 6" (2010). From the front it looks like a Ming dynasty scroll painting of a mountain landscape. The back reveals that the images are created by vines, dead leaves, and roots taped to a frosted-glass light box. At the close of the show, the piece will be "unscrolled," its components returned to the garden.
"A lot of these artists embrace the ephemerality of nature," McFadden says. "It also speaks to their philosophical view of artmaking," according to Sims, who says they recycle materials rather than consider their art a commodity to be sold.
Much of the science-related work stems from fear. With science accomplishing feats like genetic engineering, cloning, in vitro fertilization, and organ transplants, doubts arise about the long-term effects of tampering with nature. "The idea of hybridity touches on real fears," McFadden says. Mutations caused by pollution are another worry: Shen Shaomin's hybrid creature, "Sagittarius" (2005), cast from bone meal, is a composite human-horse form – an experiment gone awry?
Artists also respond by rejecting pure logic and scientific objectivity. "The intellectual [approach] is no longer enough," Sims says, "particularly in this cyberworld we live in." Using materials such as insects and mice that spark a visceral shudder forces a viewer to experience a work on multiple levels. You can almost hear heads snap back as viewers recoil after reading the labels. Take, for example, Fabián Peña's delicate, sepia-toned mosaic made from cockroach fragments. First comes "ahh," then "ick!" then "hmmm."
As Ms. MccGuire says in an artist's statement, reframing materials like pigeon feathers that usually incite disgust entices viewers to re-examine prejudices. A visceral response to discomfiting material triggers ideas that resonate in the mind, she says, "somewhere beyond rational interpretation."
"The D.I.Y. phenomenon is not just a fad," McFadden notes, "but is indicative of a need in human beings' lives to have something they do, not just type on a keyboard." Artists want to reengage with the real, and what's more real (or powerful) than nature? Tracy Heneberger, whose "Moon" (2006) consists of anchovies covered with shellac in a tondo shape, describes his use of marine creatures in the catalog: "In a digital age defined by the virtual and inorganic, I choose elements with direct connections to the earth."
The attraction and repulsion related to nature and science stem from intrinsic awe and fear at the majesty and power of nature, which humanity sometimes harnesses and occasionally botches. Human beings – as part of nature – share both awe-full and awful qualities.
Despite man's overreaching and blunders, the artist's ability to re-purpose dead or debased material through the creative act brings it back to life. "It has a meaning and visual significance it didn't have before," McFadden points out.
The best example is a pair of works by Jochem Hendricks called "Hansi" and "Bubi" (2002-04), named after parakeets that, once deceased, were plucked of their blue and green feathers. The artist then sent their carbonized corpses to a lab to be pressurized into tiny synthetic diamonds. On two plinths, surrounded by a halo of feathers, these uncut diamonds glitter and gleam: art objects sprouted from organic compost.