The New Pygmalion: Art In A Petri Dish

by / 05/06/12

You might think there’s nothing really new happening in contemporary art. We rehash the past, wrap it in new esoterics and slap on some buzzwords, but there’s no shock of the new. Everything seems vaguely familiar. Think again.

An international network of ‘bioartists’ are playing God with biotechnology, making art with embryos, stem cells and lab animals, exploring life’s composition, ownership, vulnerability. Their audiences typically divide in two. Many consider the work bad taste; others welcome the provocation of dialogue around the use and regulation of biotechnology before corporate interest can obstruct policy change.

In Australia, Tissue Culture and Art grow ‘victimless’ leather and meat: Disembodied Cuisine involved growing artificial meat from frogs’ stems cells, consumed at a gallery dinner, in a utopian celebration attended by farm animals spared through the technology. Their Semi Living Worry Dolls involved seven Guatemalan worry dolls moulded from polymers, seeded with muscle and placed in culture in a bioreactor. Whilst reinterpreting the relationship between form and content in an age of biotechnology, the work opens space for debate about the cultivation and manipulation of life.

Not stem cells, but embryos are the chosen medium of artists Adam Zaretsky and Martha de Menezes. With apparent whimsy Zaretsky toys with his ‘designer’ zebrafish and pheasant embryos, attempting to grow them excessive heads and limbs in his “quest for a transgenic aesthetic”; Menezes manipulates the patterns on butterfly wings, making them asymmetrical. Audiences are moved to question their trust in institutional and market applications of biotech relative to their upset at artists’, who adhere to the same regulations.

Exploring the ramifications of life’s commodification, Chrissy Conant undergoes hormone fertility treatment to ‘super-ovulate’, packaging the harvest for sale in caviar-esque containers. “Using my genes as a commodity,” she says, seductively posed on her ChrissyCaviar(R) labels, “I am making art with my body.” The boutique store Gene Genies Worldwide opened in 1998 in California, selling new genetic traits to people wanting to modify their personalities. Brochures showcased traits found to be genetic (creativity, criminality, introversion, extroversion), the shop full of petri dishes and double helix models. Owners did not deliver on the flood of orders.

Mark Quinn experiments with reductionist portraits: Sir John Sulston is made of bacterial cell colonies taken from Sulston’s sperm, and Self sculpted from nine litres of Quinn’s own frozen congealed blood. Whilst these are not new art materials, bioart subverts the polarisation of art and science, positioning artists and scientists as co-detectives in the relentless search for an ever-elusive self. Susan Aldworth explores the beauties of neuroimaging, exploding the otherwise reductionist subtexts of brain scans.

Eduardo Kac’s Genesis ventures further into the mindfuck of life contemplating life. In 1999, he translated the passage “Let man have dominion…over every living thing,” into genetic code via Morse; he then had a gene made from the sequence, which was inserted into bacteria in a petri dish. Kac seeds DNA with discourse, confronting the very ‘code of life’ with its codifications. Is this new—or have we been engineering life through discourse all along?

In an age increasingly requiring biotechnology to provide solutions to health, food safety and environmental challenges, bioart provokes democratic development of the concepts and policies needed to cope with our increasing technological capabilities. So whaddya reckon, fellow life forms, fellow subjects of the corporatocracy— synthetic meat? Engineered embryos? ChrissyCaviar, anyone?

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