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Giving (Real) Life to Art

7 minute read
Michael Fitzgerald / Perth

With its slanted skylights and attic atmosphere, the room adheres to the idea of an artist’s loft. The space has a creative calm, and art literature is strewn around – a Caravaggio exhibition invite here, a Venice Biennale catalog there. But it doesn’t take long to realize that the 11 resident artists here are different from the norm. There are no easels, kilns or sculptor’s busts. Next to room 222 protein facility, in the University of Western Australia’s school of anatomy and human biology, visitors to SymbioticA, an arts and science research lab, are greeted by the sign: make absolutely sure the door is locked.Visitors beware: there are things in here to make your hair curl – literally. SymbioticA director Stuart Bunt, a neuroscientist specializing in recording the visual systems of fish, is preparing for the arrival of a dozen or so international biotech artists for an exhibition in September – including a Japanese artist attempting to get through Customs a quantity of light-emitting, genetically modified moss. “The things they need to set up are not the typical things you need in an art gallery,” Bunt explains. “People say, I want three bales of hay, or I want six ounces of some obscure protein which feeds whatever thing they’re growing.”

But the core of their activity, and what has brought SymbioticA to world attention, is the semi-living tissue culture works of artistic director Oron Catts, 37, and his partner Ionat Zurr, 34. Since SymbioticA opened in 2000, they’ve grown animal cells into Petri dishsized sculptures of wings, dolls, even hamburgers. For this, the blue-lab-coatgarbed artists use the tools of science: culturing their easily contaminated cells under sterile hoods, feeding them on nutrient solutions, and coaxing them to grow along polymer scaffolding in womb-like bioreactors. Their expertise is sought the world over – last March, Catts was invited to speak at London’s Tate Modern – while their creations, or “babies,” have appeared in the pages of the New York Times. While Catts self-deprecatingly describes their skills as “somewhere between being a gardener, a chef and a bartender,” collaborator Bunt says: “I don’t think there’s anybody now who knows more about the practical aspect of tissue engineering of small organs than Ionat and Oron.” Being able to consult daily with tissue-culture leaders such as burns surgeon Fiona Wood makes Perth their perfect laboratory. “It’s an unusual convergence of both people and place,” explains Bunt, “in that Perth has less cultural resistance to new things, as well as being more of a big village.”

With amazing reach. For proof, audiences need look no further than the doodling robotic arm of meart, at Melbourne’s Australian Centre of the Moving Image until Sept. 12. A collaboration between SymbioticA and the Potter Group in the U.S., the arm is activated via the Internet by live recordings of fish neurons cultured in a lab in Atlanta, Georgia. SymbioticA’s American association goes back to 2000, when Catts, Zurr and colleague Guy Ben-Ary spent a year at the pioneering tissue engineering lab of Harvard professor Joseph Vacanti, famous for growing a human-scale ear on the back of a mouse. The fruit of that residency was The Pig Wings Project, where for nine months the team grew 2.5-cm bird, bat and reptile wings out of pig cells in an ironic response to the Human Genome Project. (The remains, bathed in led lights, are now on display at Madrid’s La Casa Encendida until October 3.) The marriage between art and science has not always been an easy one. Apart from Leonardo da Vinci’s flights of fantasy, the results have been more often painful than poetic: performance artist Stelarc’s interest in cyborg prosthetics, for instance, or Orlan’s obsession with plastic surgery. More recently, Patricia Piccinini’s mutant sculptures have been inspired by genetic engineering, but are as lively as Dolly the sheep. For Catts and Zurr, such art is best peered at through a microscope. “The moment you start to work with life,” says Zurr, who studied photomedia in Perth (Catts is a graduate of product design), “it’s much more interesting than the representation.” Engaging with it is more of a challenge. As Michael Snelling, chair of the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board, puts it, “Something happening in a Petri dish is not necessarily that interesting to watch. What’s happening might be fundamentally important, but how do you make it accessible to an audience? That is a step that Lifeboat is making.”

Lifeboat is the Perth pair’s latest foray into performance art. At press time, the team were taking their tissue culture lab to the Baltic, installing it inside an old oil-rig lifeboat aboard a fully functioning cruise ship as part of an electronic arts festival. Members of the public have been invited to give dna samples and take part in the experiments. “The aesthetic is somewhere between a laboratory and a backyard garage,” says Catts – and a neat symbol of bioterrorism fears. If Lifeboat approaches an opera in scale (funded to the tune of $A60,000 by the Australia Council, it is also a collaboration between sound artist Nigel Helyer and underwater artist Sarah Jane Pell), their previous works were more like plays. For an exhibition in Nantes, France, last March, Catts and Zurr staged a dinner party to eat tiny steaks cultured from frog cells. Then in September, the pair grew a quarter-scale ear for performance artist Stelarc: it was kept alive in a revolving bioreactor for two weeks before being ritually “killed.”

But is their work falling on deaf ears? When Victimless Leather, a stitchless garment jacket grown from scar tissue of a mouse was shown as part of a textile conference in May, “a number of people refused to go into the room where it was held,” recalls Bunt. And those that did may well have been disappointed by the thumb-scale, flesh-colored “garment” backlit in its Frankenstein apparatus. The B-grade Hammer Horror staging has been the subject of “robust debate,” explains Bunt. The pair’s early photographic work of cells – including B(w)omb, 1998, which was used as an Australia Council Christmas card – was dismissed by some as being too beautiful and not critical enough of biotechnology. “It’s paradoxical,” says Bunt, “but if we show science in too good a light, then we get criticized for being a publicist for science.” As far as Catts is concerned, beauty is “for decorators.” Instead, their mission is to bring into galleries “very evocative objects in order to generate cultural discussion.”

Indeed, in a world where as of last week U.K. scientists were given licenses to clone human embryos, ethical questions are abounding as fast as the technology. Such medical advances “create a lot of anxiety and confusion, and lots of fear,” says Catts. “So our work is really dealing with that.” In this sense, Guatemalan Worry Dolls is their most perfectly realized work. Grown from animal cells and exhibited during their time in Vacanti’s Boston lab, these “semi-living” sculptures have been kept alive through the e-mails sent to the artists, whose website invites readers to “tell the doll your worries.” “Will I live long?” asked Grady in April. “Comment vivre avec des clones?” wrote Maria in June. The same month, Catts and Zurr produced their best work yet, a baby girl called Lilit.

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