By Mark D. Uehling
Senior Science Editor
June 12, 2002 | The art world appears to be drawing as much inspiration from the post-genomic era as that of science and medical research. Last year, the National Portrait Gallery in London unveiled a work featuring former Sanger Institute chief Sir John Sulston's DNA (housed in colonies of bacteria). Now, a new exhibit, entitled Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics, at the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery in Seattle offers a series of even more radical interpretations on the marriage of genomic and information technology. The show consists of 50 pieces in a variety of media, including several memorable works.
Take Eighteen Frogs with Pants Categorized by Color (1994), for example, provocative photos by Bill Scanga. This "is an installation in which 18 taxidermy frogs with custom-made pants are presented as individual specimens in their own jars, organized by pant color," according to the Gene(sis) catalog. "These works take on new meaning in the context of rapid developments in transgenics and genetic engineering: What has caused these frogs to wear pants? Evolution or transgenics?"
Eduardo Kac has pioneered what he calls "transgenic art," in which genetic engineering is used for aesthetic purposes. One of his better-known works is a rabbit that glows fluorescent green if exposed to the appropriate wavelength of ultraviolet light. For his multimedia composition Genesis (1999), Kac translated a quote from the Bible into Morse code, then into the letters of DNA, and finally into actual genetic material. These "genes" mutate in response to viewer attention both at the exhibit and online.
Jaq Chartier is equally familiar with the tools of the trade. She uses traditional artistic media — photographic chemicals and paint — and has adopted some of the techniques of gel electrophoresis. Her paintings are literally experiments: Chartier mixes the colors together, then lets them steep and move.
Not everything is hanging on the wall. Gene(sis) is sponsoring a modern dance event, poetry reading, and possible release of benign bacteria — all inspired by genome research.
The show was assembled with technical advice from geneticists and physicians at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Washington, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the Roswell Park Institute, and the company Owl Scientific.
The Gene(sis) exhibit featured a policy-oriented town hall meeting hosted by Leroy Hood, director of the Institute for Systems Biology, and Lee Hartwell, president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and co-recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. Later this year, the Gene(sis) exhibit will be traveling to the University of California's Berkeley Art Museum, which helped conceive the show, and the Frederick Weisman Museum of Art in Minneapolis.
The Gene(sis) exhibit can be found at www.gene-sis.net/overview.html.