Venus In Blue Genes

If God didn't create a glowing dog, why can't art?

Back in the late '70s, a Japanese roboticist named Masahiro Mori noticed a puzzling phenomenon. In the course of his research, Mori discerned that humans were generally comfortable around robots that looked like robots; but when the robots looked and acted too humanoid, people were violently repulsed by them. Mori coined a rather elegant phrase to describe this reaction: "the uncanny valley."

A similar psychological dissonance might color your opinion of "Gene(sis)," a traveling exhibit of genetics-themed artworks now at the Weisman that doubles as a disquieting stroll through an uncanny valley. Take, for instance, Daniel Lee's "Judgment," the series of photographs that opens the show. Using digital manipulation, this Chinese-born artist has morphed the faces of 13 recognizably human beings into a pantheon of shape-shifter Buddhist gods. One man has the oblong, thick-necked head of a bull; another, the grotesque physiology of a carp; and a third, the slit eyes and recessed jaw of a snake. At first, Lee's work seems like a novelty act. But let the serene spookiness of these images wash over you for a minute or two and you start to understand what Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein is talking about when he first sees his creation: "No mortal could support the horror of that countenance!" Uncanny, indeed.

Man or manimal? Daniel Lee's 'Leopard King'
Daniel Lee , Courtesy of and O.K. Harris Gallery, NY.
Man or manimal? Daniel Lee's 'Leopard King'

Hybridization is the name of the game in "Gene(sis)." A few of the artists even deploy lab techniques and materials in their work: Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, for instance, uses DNA analysis gels instead of faces in his "portraits" of families. Elsewhere, the photographer Susan Robb conjures fanciful images of DNA's gooey, microscopic world using Play-Doh, saliva, and lab equipment like Bunsen burners.

A lot of the art in "Gene(sis)" deals with the thicket of ethical and legal ambiguities that genetics introduces. In a semi-whimsical gambit, Fluxus artist Larry Miller prints and notarizes copyright certificates for his own genetic code. Nearby, in his "Genomic License No. 7 (Corpus Dualis)", Miller includes genetic samples from himself and his mother to be cloned at some later date. (Once you know that the recipe is meant to replace Miller's twin sister, who died in infancy, the installation becomes hugely creepy and Oedipal.)

Of course, hand-wringing over cloning, stem cells, and the like isn't news. And some of the stuff in "Gene(sis)" is bound to look a little dated. (Though the show originated in 2002, at the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery, a lot of the work in it has been floating around since before the millennium). But the sobering consequences of the science make the exhibit's better pieces seem all the more provocative. To wit: Lee's Island of Lost Souls menagerie is merely eerie until you let yourself imagine that some scientist is cooking up one of these beasties in a centrifuge as we speak.

Which is more or less what Brazilian-born, Chicago-based Eduardo Kac does in his big, genetics-themed installations. Here, Kac has taken a verse from the book of Genesis--"Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth"--and translated it into Morse code. Then, with the help of scientists, Kac translated that into genetic code and created a strain of E. Coli bacteria that has, essentially, God's word woven into its DNA.

You can see Kac's creation in a petri dish in the gallery, and, if you choose to visit the artist's website (www.ekac.org), you can zap the bacteria with ultraviolet light, causing it to mutate in unforeseen ways. At the end of the process, Kac takes his bacteria and translates its DNA back into Old Testament form. Usually, only a few letters of the original verse have changed. (I'll admit I was sort of hoping the mutated bacteria would pump out Black Sabbath lyrics.) What it all means is anyone's guess. But then give Kac his props: What he's developed here is indisputably an A+ science project.

Kac's other piece in "Gene(sis)," which is represented only by wall texts and a few photos, documents the artist's collaboration with French geneticists to cross a rabbit's DNA with that of a Pacific jellyfish. The resulting creature, named Alba, glowed bright green when placed under a certain frequency of light. According to his website, Kac has plans to produce a glowing dog next.

One might question the probity of Kac's experimentation: Bacteria is one thing, but a dog is something else entirely. Should an artist be creating, and/or extinguishing, life for ends that are, at best, ambiguous? Then again, if we are to believe the unadulterated, pre-Kac version of Genesis, God was quite a handy artist. Why shouldn't the inverse hold true as well?

 
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