Recent developments in genetic research have inspired both anxiety and hope concerning their potential effects. To shed light on this, at times, arcane region of modern science, the Henry Art Gallery has organized an exhibit called, Genesis: Contemporary Art explores Human Genomics. Curator Robin Held commissioned three pieces specifically for the show - works that came out of a multi-year dialogue between artists and genetic researchers. Other pieces in the exhibit - which include sculpture, photography, installation art, and painting -offer further commentary on the emerging new transgenic world. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin recently visited the show, and found it a mixed bag. Here is his review.
The first glimpse of the big genetics show is promising. Leaning over the mezzanine balcony, one peers into a huge black space containing a spotlit Petri dish and its giant magnification on the wall, a view of swarming multi-cellular life . Hovering above in huge letters is the passage from Genesis “Let Man Have dominion over the fish of the Sea and the fowl of the air.” It is all very cinematic, complete with a sound track of ethereal clangs and rattles.
One descends to exhibit level eager to see more of this dramatic exhibit. But there is no more — the Petri dish is the exhibit. Upon reading the explanatory text — unavoidable in a show like this one - one discovers that the bugs on the wall are simply a bit of unrelated digital animation, the sound track some arbitrary noise. The dish itself contains a tiny patch of bacteriological muck - germs whose genes have been altered by using the letters of the biblical text, converted indirectly into DNA coding. Unlike a real experiment, the end product of this cell culture isn’t supposed to prove anything, other than that messing with real chromosomes is now an option for conceptual artists. Is the next logical development a boycott of genetically modified art?
A similar disconnect between high-tech means and artistically disappointing ends occurs in many other works in this less-than-stellar show, including the three pieces specially commissioned by the museum.
In one of these works, a tiny video camera sits inertly over a billboard-sized thumbprint, the action of the camera being driven by visitors to a maze-like video game accessible only on the internet. The live viewer is left to puzzle over some abstruse wall text while getting the distinct feeling they are missing something. Another commissioned work - a statement on racial politics - features a digitally animated foot race, each virtual runner linked to microscopic movements of genetic material from the artist’s mixed-race family. A third piece has still more Petri dishes linked by glass tubes encircling a suspended tree trunk. All of these pieces rely far too much on our excitement about actions in an invisible world we can neither see nor clearly understand.
Much more effective are the few pieces in the exhibit where artists use less rarified means — and no long list of scientific advisors— to get their message across. One stellar example is a hilarious installation by Dario Robleto which displays the inner workings of a machine built to extract the soul from soul music. One side is a refrigeration chamber — Soul on Ice — with piles of blue plastic supposedly made from melted Motown records. Pipes lead to a mock lab where the soul separator — a moving turntable — does the work of extraction, and shelves of tiny vials with labels like “Holland-Dozier-Holland” mix and “Girl Group Sound” sit side by side with microscopes, skulls, and floating specimens in jars. Along with its send-up of genetic researchers, doctors, and anyone else who takes themselves too seriously, the exhibit pokes good-natured fun at the entertainment industry and its obsession with discovering that elusive sure-fire formula.
Susan Robb also succeeds in creating a world of enticing pseudo-science. Using play-dough and various other definitively low tech materials, she builds colorful sculptures which look vaguely biological, like close-ups of intestinal polyps or nasal hairs. She then photographs these setups in a style which carefully mimes the look of images taken from an electron microscope. The resulting pictures are funny, creepy, and mysterious, a complete alternate world no less bizarre, and interesting, than our own.
In art, at least, no amount of high-tech fancy footwork can surpass the effectiveness of wit, imagination, and craft, a useful lesson in this era when the means so often outstrip the ends.