Nature is interpretable.
The 20th century was characterized, almost in its entirety, by an acceleration of scientific research—especially that of physics—that marked several points of no return in history. Advances in color theory and the perception of light, the discovery of the atom, the concept of time as a relative, nonlinear fact, and the ravages caused by the atomic bomb can be appreciated in some art movements of the time: from Impressionism, at the end of the 19th century, through abstraction, to optical art, kineticism, and sound art. As creations of man, arts and sciences have searched for a way to give form and help understand the world around us.
However, it was by the second half of the century that biology and genetics dethroned physics and began to create new milestones for modern science. After a period of silence caused by the aftermath of World War II, the sciences of life became again a main subject of debate thanks to events such as the discovery of the human genome and “Dolly,” the first successful cloning of a perfectly autonomous being.
Scientific discourse, so far removed from the public domain because of its own apprehension and double morality, began to close up and become cryptic. Large companies and laboratories maintain—to this day and age, as is the well-known case of Monsanto—a certain degree of power and control over common people. Bio Art arose, among other reasons, due to a growing need to decipher and democratize scientific discourse, to recode it into a language closer to the humanities. The irony lies in the fact that this language, that of the arts, has in time also become difficult to decode for the uninitiated.
Although different opinions exist about its title—’Bioart’, ‘bio art’, ‘Bio Art’, ‘transgenic art’—and about its limits and fields of action, the one constant is that bio art is a trend in contemporary art, that emerged between the 1980s and 1990s. It deals with issues related to biology, genetics, and biotechnology.
Unfortunately, for bio artist and theorist Goerge Gessert, the richness of bio art resides in one of its least explored aspects. In his book Green Light: Towards an Art of Evolution, Gessert reflects on a quote by curator Jens Hauser, who complains that bio art has been viewed mostly as an excuse to discuss problems more closely related to politics or economy than with aesthetics:
“In addition to the absence of commentary on aesthetics, writings have largely ignored how bio art can affect our understanding of plants, animals, evolution, and nature. (…) In bio art, cultural histories meet the histories of organisms, and in these encounters bio art´s most far-reaching meanings can be found.”
Perhaps because of the art-nature duality, still deeply embedded in our way of thinking and conceiving art and culture, bio art has been appreciated more as an agent of denunciation than as a possibility for establishing a solid bridge between the humanities and the sciences. Practices or works of a more mediatic nature prevail over the rest in the reflections and comments of scholars, and the approach from which they are studied usually links them directly to socio-political events. I think Gessert is key to understanding this artistic trend in a much richer and interdisciplinary way, as understood by Amalia Kallergi and Robert Mitchell, who conceive of bio art as an ‘umbrella term’ under which a series of artistic practices meet. Both authors seem to be guided by José Luis Brea’s views on visual studies: beyond the post-media era and after acknowledging that the artist can nourish himself with as many disciplines as he requires, it is understood that the arts theorist must be able to use those same sources and as many cultural references he needs—a research path marked by freedom.
In his book Bioart and the Vitality of Media, Robert Mitchell suggests that two major branches—or, as he calls them, ‘techniques’—of bio art exist: the vitalist and the prophylactic. The first is named after Vitalism, a bio-philosophical tendency now regarded as deciduous, which understood the world as a conglomeration of vital forces and organisms. Mitchell thus named the branch of bio art that makes use of biotechnology and living or organic elements, since, like the vital forces in Vitalism, these works must be met under ethical and aesthetic codes different from the rest. At the center of vitalist bio art lies the creation of pathos (a relational-emotional link) between the spectator and the piece. Gessert states that this happens when the ‘I’ is recognized in the ‘other’, where man identifies himself as a living being in the materials or objects of study of bio art—similar to what happens when pictorial still lifes present the spectator with flowers full of life, but marked by a promise of decay. It could be said that, in the creation of this link, the spectator recognizes himself as an ephemeral being, or that, by recognizing this fact before the piece, the aforementioned pathos is born.
The prophylactic technique is named after the branch of medicine responsible for the prevention of diseases; in essence, it creates barriers or distances the body from pollutants and possibly harmful agents. Unlike the vitalist, this technique proposes a physical-temporal distance between the scientific fact and the spectator, created through the use of different artistic resources.
Venezuelan artist Alexandra Kuhn’s ADN [‘DNA’] piece adapts to Mitchell’s definition of prophylactic bio art. This work was first presented in the context of the 2003 Michelena Salon in Valencia, Venezuela, and was awarded the Henrique Avril Prize that same year. It consists of a series of long curved elements arranged vertically on a red background and subject to small fan motors. When these are activated, the structures turn on their own axis, describing a double helix, the base form of DNA. In reference to this piece, Kuhn confessed it was based on her studies on genome—linked to the discovery of the genetic code of rice in 2002—, and on her personal experience during pregnancy. The work refers to genetics and biology, but without employing laboratory tools or any genetic material.
Trained as a graphic designer, Kuhn has maintained a close relationship with organic elements since the start of her career, especially those of botanical origin. She approached them initially as subjects of representation, until arriving at physically working with them.
In 2013, Kuhn undertook a summer artistic residence specialized in bio art at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. For a group exhibition that arose from this experience, she presented a work in which greenery appeared as a living fact and, therefore, condemned to perish; it was a song to life and a reproach to death. Kuhn’s work was titled LIVING, and it served as the germ for her most recent solo show at Carmen Araujo Arte in Caracas, LIVING (experiencia ccs), held that same year.
Rosa in time, presented in LIVING (experiencia ccs), is a photographic diptych in which Kuhn approaches the rose as a symbol of perishable beauty and the ephemerality of life.
She contrasts images and suggests a reading of the passage of time: like the paintings of the Baroque vanitas, all that is beautiful perishes, the pure and the young is corrupted, and this is an inescapable reality. The similarity between this piece and the painting by Mexican artist Tomás Mondragón, Alegoría de la muerte, is striking: a work divided into two samples—on one side, the pleasures and beauty of life and, on the other, the desolation and perversion of the flesh that comes with death, the ultimate purpose of every living being.
Both works are read from left to right, dividing the piece between life and death. LIVING (experiencia ccs) marks a turning point in Kuhn’s career: after years of developing work that insisted on the preservation of natural beauty, she now left it to rot, portraying it both at its most splendid and in an advanced state of decomposition. Memento mori, all living things perish.
The focal point of Kuhn’s exhibition was an installation entitled Una verdad y tres mentiras [‘One truth and three lies’]/ To be informed is she, which consisted of a living rose plant in a bag of earth, two roses in advanced state of decomposition in plastic bags, a Moleskine notebook intervened with photography and graphite, and finally a fabric rose inside a glass cup.
Similar to Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965), by arranging the three roses in the table Kuhn presented the spectator with a question: Which one is the true rose? For Kuhn, it is clear. The truth is in the living rose, in the natural being, not in the putrid rose, encapsulated in an eagerness to preserve its beauty, nor in the photograph of the rose stuck in the notebook, and much less in the artificial flower inside the truncated cup. The text quoted by her in the Moleskine notebook makes it clear; taken from Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, it reads: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”
When read from the living rose to the false rose, this piece seems to deconstruct the image of the flower and transform the natural and true into pure symbol and image. Kuhn thus joins an artistic tradition that seeks to deconstruct the symbol of the rose as an image of perfection and pure beauty, a tradition that seems to be preceded by Gertrude Stein with her poem Sacred Emily (1913), in which the name of a woman is transformed into a flower, which becomes word, which becomes form… “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Back to Kuhn’s installation as an expository event, it raises a problem addressed by Kallergi in his article Bioart on Display – challenges and opportunities of exhibiting bio art: How is a piece whose main characteristic is to be composed of a living being exhibited in a space not suitable for the subsistence of delicate beings, such as art galleries? These institutions, or rather the buildings containing them, are created for the purpose not only of exhibiting works of art, but also for protecting them from a series of organic factors like the sun, humidity, and even living organisms. This became evident during the exhibition in Carmen Araujo Arte: though the gallery staff watered and frequently exposed the rose plant to the sun to prolong its life, it eventually died and had to be replaced. This was repeated at least three times throughout the span of the exhibition.
Thus, the piece was modified over time: not only the physical deterioration of the rose became evident in the eyes of the spectator, but the same plant was changed on several occasions and, with it, the color of its flowers. Kuhn’s oeuvre, as a commodity and object of collection, remains in a threshold space: whoever acquires it will be both an art collector and a plant connoisseur—both are similarly regarded by Gessert when he argues that both are moved by an interest in the particular and require a considerable fortune—, since the piece requires not only a space to be exhibited as a work of art but a series of care and conditions to live.
Una verdad y tres mentiras/To be informed is she seems to bridge the two techniques proposed by Mitchell: it is an installation that does not employ genetic material or biotechnology, but it presents both a living being and decomposing biological material in situ. The pathos between spectator and work is born from the use of a living being and the presence of decaying organic bodies, but text, paper, and other objects are also being used at the same time. Kuhn’s work seems to enter the realm of bio art at times, only to exit it again; these incursions into the tendency happen at ambiguous points and in the meetings of discursive resources.
The only thing that unifies Kuhn’s approaches and immersions into bio art seems to be the phrase written next to a broken mahogany seed in one of the Moleskine notebooks she presented in Punto de encuentro (Carmen Araujo Arte, 2014): “If conditions are favorable, this seed will be a mahogany tree. / Nature is interpretable.”
For José Albelda “(…) the art of all times has always offered us (…) an inestimable account of how each culture saw itself in relation to its environment (…)” What, then, would bio art be, but an actualized and biological interpretation of the relationship of our culture to the nature that surrounds it?
ALBELDA, José. “Territorios, caminos y senderos”. In: Fabrikart. Arte, tecnología, Industria, Sociedad, N°4. Bilbao, España: Facultad de Bellas Artes, Universidad del País Vasco. 2004
BREA, José Luis. “Estética, Historia del Arte, Estudios Visuales”. In: Estudios visuales. Murcia: CENDEAC. Número 3, año 4. 2006. pp. 7-25. Available in: http://estudiosvisuales.net/revista/pdf/num3/brea_estetica.pdf.
GESSERT, George. Green Light: Toward an Art of Evolution. EE.UU.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2010
KALLERGI, Amalia. Bioart on Display – challenges and opportunities of exhibiting bioart. The Netherlands: Leiden University. 2008. Available in: http://www.kallergia.com/bioart/docs/kallergi_bioartOnDisplay.pdf.
MITCHELL, Robert. Bioart and the Vitality of Media. EE.UU.:University of Washington Press. 2010
About the author:
Ricardo Sarco Lira (Caracas, 1991) graduated with a degree in Arts from Universidad Central de Venezuela, where he majored in Fine Arts and Museology. “An approximation to Bio Art through the work of Alexandra Kuhn and Gabriela Albergaria” (2015) was his final research project, for which he received an honorable mention. He also holds a Diploma in Art Criticism (2013) from the same University. He currently works as a bookseller at Librería Lugar Común in Caracas and as an Instructor at the UCV School of Arts, where he teaches Latin American Aesthetic Ideas.
#Tesis is Backroom Caracas’ section that welcomes short versions of research projects by university students, both ongoing and graduated.