TCS Daily


By Crispin Sartwell - April 26, 2002 12:00 AM

Ponder with me if you dare and care to the matter of bio-art: art that uses living organisms as a medium. I'm not talking about elephants with brushes in their trunks, but works of art made of microbes, or swarming with insects.

British bad boy Damien Hirst, for example, has graduated from sliced-up cattle to a work that depicts the life cycle of houseflies. They start as maggots on a rotting carcass, metamorphose into adult flies, then buzz into the bug-zapper.

But Adam Zaretsky's work makes Hirst's look positively timid. Zaretsky built an environment - a Plexiglas cube - in which he and members of five other species could frolic with, co-exist with, or prey on one another for a week. His "WorkHorse Zoo," exhibited in February in the Salina (Kansas) Art Center, included the Arabidopsis thaliana (mustard plant), Saccharomynces cerevisiae (yeast), Caenorhabditis elegans (roundworm), Danio rerio (zebra fish), Drosophila melanogaster (vinegar fly), Escherichia coli (bacteria), Mus musculus (mice), Xenopus laevis (African clawed frog), and Homo sapiens(Mr. Zaretsky).

These species were chosen because they are the standard species for experimentation in molecular biology. And they were encouraged to do their biological thing - reproduce and devour - during the performance. Zaretsky himself started as a corporate biotechnician, then devolved day by day to the condition of a caveman, dressed in a leopard-skin loincloth and cowboy boots.

But is it art? Well, that is surely by now a tiresome question. Let's just agree that whatever is in an "Art Center" is art. The more pressing questions are about what the work means and what it shows.

In its playful way, "WorkHorse Zoo" is about the anxiety with which we approach the manipulation of life in an era in which technology has made the pace of that manipulation incredibly rapid. As we plot the human genome and clone rabbits, we seem to be almost in position to make designer animals and human beings.

Way back in the 20th Century, people were concerned with issues such as the effect of the automobile on the environment, and the ever ascending stacks of trash. Soon, there were junked cars and small landfills in the great museums. In our happy new era, we're mutating fruit flies instead.

But in fact the relation of art and life, like the relation of art and technology, has always been extremely close. The arts of topiary or landscape gardening, for instance, have reached incredible heights of sophistication.

Most of the species with which human beings deal have co-adapted with us. By stirpiculture and husbandry, we have manufactured varieties of domestic animals and plants that we thought useful or enjoyable. There is no reason not to consider your cat or the tomatoes growing in your garden as works of art of a certain kind.

Of course, the pace picks up, and now we may get ourselves into a position where it takes a matter of moments rather than generations to create a new variety of organism. People could now in the most literal sense become organismal artist and display their new pig not at the 4-H show but at the museum.

Soon we won't have painters or even junk sculptors, but folks who make fantastic birds, or print, signed, unlimited editions of you, or create entire biospheres.

Of course, there may be a few little glitches along the way. Think anthrax is bad? Wait until the bioterrorists are art students.

Meanwhile, we'll just have to try to keep track of what's happening. Keeping track of Adam Zaretsky: he's in Australia, figuring out how to grow a third eye.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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