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Genomic Portraits
The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age
by Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin

Reviewed by
Anne Collins Goodyear

Book Reviews


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Book Reviews

In The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age, authors Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin examine the intersections between art and science in the developing arena of genetic research and engineering. The book is clearly written, well documented, and lavishly illustrated. It will appeal to a wide audience, including artists, scientists, and the general public with an interest in the host of ethical and social questions raised by molecular science.

Anker, a visual artist, and Nelkin, a social scientist, provide a thorough survey of the newly designated genre of “sci-art”—work that through its use of materials and imagery explicitly engages new advances in science. They both demonstrate the impact of molecular science on contemporary art and culture and reveal the aesthetic dimensions inherent in the scientific enterprise itself. Their primary concern, however, is not with the art itself, but with the issues art raises.

The authors proceed from the premise that DNA “has become a powerful and pervasive [cultural] icon,” to argue that “visual artists portray the expectations and salient anxieties of our genetic age” through their examination of “the moral and ethical dilemmas of manipulating nature, the patenting of genes, and the concerns brought about by the changing status of humans in the post-genomic world.”

Several recent exhibitions, including one recently organized by Anker for the New York Academy of Sciences, acknowledge that the melding of art and genetics has wide appeal today, and numerous artists, including Anker, have explored the implications of genetic science. In a series of eight unnumbered chapters that create a sense of simultaneity rather than progression, Anker and Nelkin explore how artists have responded to changing images of the body: the body as code, the body as “collage” of parts, the body as marketable commodity.

Some artists, such as Marc Quinn and Gary Schneider, have depicted their subjects quite literally as genetic sequences. Quinn’s 2001 Sir John Sulston: A Genomic Portrait renders Sulston, a British scientist who helped to map the human genome, as a series of cells that contain his DNA. Although the work contains no visual likeness, Quinn describes the piece as “the most realistic portrait in the [London National] Portrait Gallery.” Schneider produces self-portraits featuring microscopic photographs of his chromosomes.

Others, like Edouardo Kac, who describes himself as a “transgenic” artist, create hybrid bodies that blur the boundary between art and science. Kac’s GFP Bunny, depicts the product of Kac’s collaboration with a geneticist. They crossed the genes of a jellyfish containing Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) with those of a rabbit, allegedly causing the resulting mammal to phosphoresce.

The commodification of the body concerns Chrissy Conant, who has invented Chrissy Caviar, 2001-2002, a “product” consisting of her own eggs which were harvested after the artist underwent fertility treatment.

If such artwork raises ethical questions, it reflects those created by today’s unprecedented potential for the scientific manipulation and exploitation of the body. While new research into DNA holds the promise of better treatments—and even cures—for debilitating diseases, it also spurs debates about the appropriate applications of genetic manipulation.

Why does art serve as a barometer for investigating the social, cultural, and intellectual implications of contemporary molecular biology? In large part, because art provides a tangible means to examine the metaphors and myths implicit in scientific research, or at least in its popular reception.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this study is the history Anker and Nelkin provide that elucidates certain trends in contemporary sci-art. Pointing, for instance, to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus and to the more recent work of the surrealists and Dadaists, who created fantastical cyborgs and chimeras during the 1920s and 1930s, Anker and Nelkin show that fantasies of bodily transformation long predate recent genetic advances. Art fires the scientific imagination, just as science inspires contemporary artists.

Like much of the work examined here, The Molecular Gaze is a hybrid product, built of component parts removed from their familiar contexts. Genetics is pulled out of the laboratory and thrust beneath the lens of art. Anker and Nelkin turn for publication to a press with ties to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory led by James Watson, who helped discover the very structure of DNA.

The authors remove recent sculpture, painting, and new media installations from the rarified context of the gallery, and insert the work into a public discourse. At this intersection, science becomes personal, and art functions as an eloquent and effective interlocutor.

Anne Collins Goodyear is Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin. The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, New York, 2004.

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