.Playing God, Like Scientists

A thought-provoking exhibit considers human modifications of animals.

The green bunny on the posters advertising the Gene(sis) exhibition at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is an artistic invention, but not a fictional one. Named Alba, she is a real-life transgenic animal created by splicing the DNA of a Pacific Northwest jellyfish with that of an albino rabbit. Under a particular wavelength of blue light, she actually glows green.

Alba was a collaborative project of artist Eduardo Kac and a team of French geneticists, who considered her part of a much larger “interdisciplinary artwork.” Kac had hoped to bring the rabbit back to his home in Chicago, but the French laboratory decided not to let her go, and she lived there in captivity until her recent death, probably unaware of the international debate she stirred up. Her strange story (not to mention her bizarre appearance) points to all kinds of ethical questions, many of which have already been batted around in the long public dialogue over genetic engineering. The role of art and artists in these kinds of projects, however, presents a totally unprecedented issue. Now that it is actually possible to create new forms of life, should artists be allowed to make aesthetically motivated decisions about what those forms will be? And if artists are given a free hand to create at will, how will these new living artworks be bought and sold on the commercial art market? Who will serve as the “morals police,” and who will protect us when some art project gone awry escapes from its cage? The old saying about artists playing God certainly takes on a provocative new valence in this context.

Some of the earliest human storytelling involves strange hybrid creatures. Greek myths were full of half-human/half-beasts that either terrorized an unsuspecting populace or suffered, sadly misunderstood, in isolation. Science fiction has more than picked up where those stories left off. Could this extensive inherited tradition explain our oddly ambivalent attitude toward the news that once-imaginary beings are actually coming to life in laboratories around the world?

Catherine Chalmers, another artist featured in Gene(sis), plays on this ambivalence in her series of photographs entitled Transgenic Mice. She took the pictures in 2000, before new legislation was enacted to help protect her subjects: laboratory research mice that have been genetically programmed to develop tumors, obesity, and other chronic ailments. Enlarged in huge, full-color prints to hundreds of times their actual size, it is impossible to ignore their disfigurement, and yet we can’t help guiltily thinking that many of them are still cute. The mice are both horrible and darling; they represent both a massively profitable industry and little bits of intelligent, furry life with whom we are fully capable of empathizing.

Chalmers’ work shares with many others in the show an ability to simultaneously attract and repulse — conflicting desires most famously associated with Surrealism, but employed here to more specifically political and ethical ends. Similar surrealist echoes also occur in Joan Fontcuberta’s Hemograms, large-scale Cibachrome prints depicting blood samples donated by the artist’s friends. Their odd shapes and colors make the blobs almost unrecognizable as bodily fluids; like Man Ray’s cameraless Rayograph process, Fontcuberta’s approach transforms ordinary materials into mysterious, ghostly silhouettes. By titling them with initials and dates, rather than full names, the artist estranges us from the live humans from whom the samples came. Rather than visualizing them as people, then, we imagine anonymous blood donors, laboratory procedures, and the possibility of AIDS, or cancer — intracellular evils that play on our worst fears both despite and because of their invisibility to the naked eye.

Margi Geerlinks and Susan Robb are two other photographers who have inherited Surrealism’s knack for combining the beautiful and the strange, the pleasurable and the anxiety-inducing. Unlike Chalmers, who utilizes strictly “straight” photography with no manipulation, digital or otherwise, Geerlinks’ heavily altered photographs visualize feats of genetic manipulation that have not yet come to pass. She uses her own family members as the “guinea pigs” in these imagined experiments. Twins depicts two elderly women — perhaps sisters, or even mirror images of the same person. One applies powder to the other’s face, leaving smooth, unwrinkled skin wherever she has touched. Age spots on the hand holding the puff contrast poignantly with the other’s newfound youth. It’s just wishful thinking, of course, but Geerlinks has done a masterful job with the digital pastiche, and we can’t help admiring the specificity and concreteness of her vision. There is a genuine feeling of selflessness on the part of the artist here — just something very sweet about someone who would wish this for her mother or grandmother and then work to make it happen, if only in the digital realm.

Geerlinks’ other photograph in the show, however, brings up some sobering implications of the desires she articulates in Twins. Mothers shows the head of an old woman on a young, nubile body, which is breastfeeding an infant. The juxtaposition of young and old is here far more awkward, not because the digital cut-and-paste is inept, but because the motivations behind it are so much more complicated. Will genetic engineering soon make it possible for a seventy-year-old woman to bear children? In our already crowded world, is that a good thing — for the elderly mothers or their babies? And whose desires does this image portray? Are we looking at the artist’s projected wish for her grandmother, or the grandmother’s (perhaps selfish, or regretful) wish for herself?

The Gene(sis) galleries are a little like an anxiety closet. We venture in, only to be confronted with fully fleshed-out embodiments of what used to be vague fears and abstract curiosities. Technology these days, we discover, is sufficiently sophisticated to meld a rabbit with a jellyfish, but nowhere near able to answer the ostensibly much simpler question of whether or not that’s a good thing. From the artists’ perspective, scientists are frequently cast as children playing with a black-magic book, fighting over funding, mutilating mice, and experimenting without permission on other people’s bodies, all the while tragically unaware of (or unconcerned about) the consequences of their actions.

Two new works were commissioned from local artists especially for the Berkeley showing of this traveling exhibition. One is Gail Wight’s Kings Play Cards, a large-scale interactive digital video installation where visitors can choose to play a variety of different mini-narratives, mostly monologues by biology faculty and researchers at UC Berkeley who discuss (or bemoan) the field’s cutthroat politics. Wight received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and will soon be joining the art faculty at Stanford University. Jim Campbell’s Memory Array will be on view starting September 21 as part of the museum’s MATRIX Program for Contemporary Art. Campbell is well known for his technological explorations of perception and emotion, and this new work will compare the ways in which human lives and DNA can be similarly affected by small, seemingly insignificant changes in the environment.

Another one of the works is accessible online: Shawn Brixey and Richard Rinehart’s Chimera Obscura, a maze through a gigantic fingerprint that is physically located in the museum gallery, can only be navigated from elsewhere via “telerobot.” Try it out at Chimera.Berkeley.edu


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