Fooling With Mother Nature | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Fooling With Mother Nature 

Artists ponder what happens whn big business interferes with natural selection.

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We are so fucked.

This isn't a conclusion endorsed by "Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics." Overall I'd say the show, at the Block Museum, takes a fairly nuanced approach to issues like genetic engineering, transspecies hybrids, and the industrialization/corporatization of DNA. It's just my interpretation--but I've got a lot of confidence in it.

A traveling exhibit curated by Robin Held of the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, "Gene(sis)" comprises works by a variety of artists in a range of media, from Internet sites to photography to the petri dish. All of it responds to new realities created, and new possibilities suggested, by genetic science.

Both the realities and the possibilities are astonishing. Not to say traumatic. Not to say apocalyptic. The successful mapping of the human genetic code together with other breakthroughs like cloning pretty much mean the end of life as we know it--and ourselves as we know us. Indeed, as "Gene(sis)" strongly suggests, the threshold of transformation has already been crossed. Even if we're lucky enough to avoid a biological catastrophe triggered by some corn seed experiment gone terribly wrong, we--meaning what are nostalgically referred to as human individuals--can't be long for this world. You think Hamlet was alienated? We're well on the way to becoming estranged from ourselves to a degree that he and 40 mad Ophelias couldn't have imagined. Our genetic material isn't ours in the way we once thought it to be. Nor is it stable in the way we once thought it to be. It's subject to unprecedented manipulation on physical, philosophical, social, political, and--of course--economic planes. Hence our fuckedness.

The artists on display in "Gene(sis)" take this information various ways, which in itself is an education. Something in me expects an artist to resist advanced genecraft in the name of individuality, variation, creative imperfection, Cage-ian randomness, or even sanctity. And some do. A five-member performance group called the Critical Art Ensemble has a room of its own where you can sit at computers and explore Web sites (also available at www.critical-art.net) for creepily believable companies like BioCom--a "flesh products and services" concern dedicated to "creating superior labor, one worker at a time"--and GenTerra, which sells such "transgenic solutions" as insecticidal corn in blandly benign, eco-friendly terms. These sites make elegant, dry fun of capitalism's amoral genius for absorbing everything into its matrix of profit and loss. Still better, though, is CAE's Society for Reproductive Anachronisms site, which touts old-fashioned sex-for-reproduction as a way to assert the value of "anomalies and the inexplicable" against designer genetics. At once hilarious and disquieting, the Society for Reproductive Anachronisms turns a century of progressive sexual politics on its head. Suddenly Planned Parenthood is a cat's-paw for eugenic fascism, and intercourse without contraception a revolutionary act.

In a similar vein, Larry Miller mounts a legal challenge to the trade in DNA with his Genetic Code Copyright certificates, printed in several languages. But it's Bill Scanga's Eighteen Frogs With Pants Categorized by Color that offers the most subversive statement in the show. The piece consists of 18 glass jars on six shelves, each jar containing a preserved frog wearing a little pair of pants (they actually look like swimming trunks). The color of the pants dictates the placement of the jar. Scanga's absurd system goes beyond ridiculing the geneticist's insistence on reducing life to a code--it burlesques the entire categorical concept on which science is based.

Other artists are more tolerant. Far from attacking genetic science, Chicago-based artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle plucks some high-tech beauty from it. For his Garden of Delights, he assembled 16 three-person "family units"--defining family loosely to include friends as well as blood relatives, people in the kind of union Bush doesn't want to protect as well as people in the kind he does. Then, using autoradiographic images, Manglano-Ovalle created large DNA portraits of each participant. The result is 16 fascinating triptychs: family pictures, taken at the nucleic level, that look like what you might get if you melted some Hans Hofmann paintings down and dripped them across yards and yards of white canvas.

A description in the show's cool but immensely inconvenient CD-ROM catalog says The Garden of Delights "considers the effects of genetic research on our ideas of family and race," and that seems true enough. But as my eye went from triptych to triptych I was amazed at how willing I was to accept each one as nothing more nor less than a representation of family likeness--an expression of group character every bit as vivid as an image created by a painter working at what I suppose we must now call the cutaneous level. A blob of green, say, repeated across all three frames becomes a statement of commonality; red isolated between blues, of tension contained. These are color-coded dramas.

Eduardo Kac embraces the brave new world too, but in what strikes me as a profoundly destructive way. A practitioner of "transgenic art" (and a School of the Art Institute faculty member), Kac enlists the help of genetic engineers to create new creatures. An example of his work is Alba, an albino rabbit with an admixture of jellyfish DNA that causes her to glow Day-Glo green under blue light of a particular intensity. When Kac's French scientist partners refused to release Alba into his possession in 2000, Kac mounted an "intervention"--basically a publicity campaign--to get her back. Naturally the campaign generated some provocative documentation, which is what's on view here. It includes a series of seven posters, each showing Kac with Alba under a single-word French headline: "Nature," "Ethique," "Famille," "Religion," "Medias," "Art," or "Science."

Kac's transgenic piece--i.e., Alba--scares the bejesus out of me. Not because of what it portends for our genes (after all, we're already fucked; at least Kac's work implies an upside: genetic cosmetology and the advent of the Day-Glo human) but for our empathic well-being. The guy's willing to breed living things just to be clever. At the risk of seeming less than 21st-century, I have to say that whipping up a freak rabbit as an art-world incitement suggests an advanced lack of reverence for life.

The best response to Kac hangs on the wall just a few feet from his installation. It's Catherine Chalmers's collection of six Cibachrome prints of genetically altered mice, taken for an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The mice had been modified to express certain traits: one was given Down syndrome, another was engineered for obesity, a third for furless wrinkled skin, a fourth for furless gray skin. The fifth got off easy with nothing worse than a curly tail. The sixth was rendered blind and sterile. Chalmers's large-format portraits approach each mouse separately, and rather intimately. The obese one looks out at us from a perfect sphere of flesh and fur. The one with Down syndrome seems deeply isolated. The wrinkled one, appearing to challenge the camera, looks querulous. And so on. Each subject is frankly and very effectively anthropomorphized. We feel for them. And for what's been done to them. This may seem like a cheap trick, but it's a useful one. In a time when our nature and being are as mutable as they can be, an appeal to human sympathy is--like fucking--a revolutionary act.

When: Through 11/28: Tue 10-5, Wed-Fri 10-8, Sat-Sun noon-5

Where: Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston

Price: Free

Info: 847-491-4000

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Julia Friedman Gallery, courtesy Max Protetch Gallery New York.

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