Week 3 Response: Art, Ecology, and the Issue of Control

On Thursday’s lecture, the intersectionality between Art and Biology were explored further as we discussed the works of Man Ray, Hans Haacke, and Eduardo Kac. The exploration of the body by both scientists and artists continues in this lecture, but instead of exploring the body like Andreas Vesalius and his illustrations and on relying on dissection to understand the body, they were given a new medium in which to observe the body — the X-Ray. With it, everyone was able to see how a limb moves with all of its tendons and ligaments and it became quite popular, so much so that frequent users learned the dangers of the x-ray through hands-on experience. Not only were scientists now able to see the inner workings of the body in motion, artists like Man Ray had access to it as well and used it to create his trademarked Rayographs. Man Ray used his rayographs to explore the body as a mechanical system, as evident in his work Coat Stand. With this new vision of seeing into the body, the topic of genetic manipulation came into play again. This was touched upon last lecture with the viewing of Gattaca and seeing how genetic discrimination became the norm. Transgenetic artist Eduardo Kac’s green fluorescent protein Bunny or “GFP Bunny” was a major controversial work of art done in the year 2000, which involved the genetic manipulation of an albino rabbit, named Alba. With the help of scientists in a lab in France, Alba received the gene from a particular type of species of jellyfish, which allowed her to turn fluorescent green under the right color. This sparked multiple debates dealing with laboratory ethics to religious concerns. This was one of the more important instances of where we see Bioart.

Bioart is defined as practices in which artists/scientists work with living organisms and manipulate them, genetically or otherwise, to achieve a certain goal. An excellent example of this type of art is Hans Haacke; his works challenge industrial and political systems while getting the viewer to critically think about living systems and their treatment. His work, Chickens Hatching, which consists of a series of fertilized eggs placed inside incubators within a grid form, is the artistic representation of artificially constructed systems of control. His other works, Grass Grows and Condensation Cube, also deals with the issues of the human desire to control that which is deemed of lesser importance. For instance, Grass Grows is all about how ecological systems have been reduced to mere ornamentation, as evident in the way in which home and business owners routinely cut and trim grass so that it is never allowed to reach a certain height or length. Here, Haacke places naturally growing grass in a gallery setting. Although the grass keeps on growing without being trimmed, it still manages to find itself in a completely controlled environment. Condensation Cube deals with similar themes, for it is also a naturally occurring system which has been contained and controlled within a gallery setting.

While Haacke’s works shed light on numerous issues dealing with corporate and political systems, and the ephemerality of nature, author Stephen Wilson supplies various artists which manage to not only shed light on these issues, but also manage to “integrate science and action, and undertake projects in which scientific research is part of the art” (Wilson 146). Two artists in which Wilson lists in Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology, are Alan Sonfist and Mel Chin, both which use scientific research to perform actions in order to reclaim land which has been lost due to construction or pollution. For instance, Sonfist’s project Time Landscape: Greenwich Village, was an attempt to restore an area of Greenwich Village to what it would have looked like before European colonization. Sonfist worked extensively to find the right species of trees that would have been indigenous to this area. This work can be seen as the reclaiming of this area’s natural state before it was destroyed. In Mel Chin’s work, Revival Field, Chin planted a series of plants that are known to be hyperaccumulators — plants that are able to absorb heavy metals from the earth — in the surrounding area of a landfill. Chin tried to detoxify a 60 square foot area in St. Paul, Minnesota by using these trees. It is the perfect combination of science and art because “the visual and scientific work together to form a unified aesthetic” (Wilson 136). By absorbing the toxins of that piece of land, Chin hopes that his plants will give way for other plants to naturally grow around it, which then will ultimately be the completion of his work.

It seems as though Bioart is the ultimate vessel for artists and scientists alike to not only shed light on numerous environmental issues, but also perform actions against said issues. However, artists like Hans Haacke, Eduardo Kac, Alan Sonfist, and Mel Chin are using “control” as a way to raise awareness and to ultimately resolve these issues. Haacke successfully critiques man-made control systems by placing nature within a gallery setting where it could not survive unless properly cared for by the artist and staff. Kac effectively exercises control over the genetic makeup of a rabbit, while Sonfist reclaims a part of Greenwich Village to its former glory, an act that would have been impossible for that area to do naturally. Lastly, Chin uses specific types of plants in a controlled area in order to detoxify it, effectively returning that land to its previous state. For me, all of these works raise the question: Does the environment need this type of control in order to survive, and if so, how much control will we have to have in order to achieve this? Will nature be even considered nature?


— Ashley Bryan Marin


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