Google the artist Stelarc and you’ll see immediately why he might be placed at the extreme end of the so-called BioArt movement, in which art is created by the manipulation of living tissues, organisms and life itself. Here he is, a short balding man—with an extra ear. On his arm. It’s not some kind of trick photography, neither is it an elaborate latex special effect. The ear is made of living tissue (cartilage), and it was surgically grafted to his arm in 2007.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a cheap shock tactic. At the time, Stelarc’s third ear was declared “offensive” by someone who had begun plastic surgery to construct an ear that she was born without. “It [the BioArtwork] could cause some people distress,” one surgeon was quoted as saying.
It’s a shame no one at that time spoke to Stelarc himself. Once you get over his rather disconcerting laugh (frequently deployed), you find he is not some shallow, shock-mongering self-publicist from the cynical side of the contemporary art scene. He is a modest, genial and eloquent man who is deeply interested in mankind’s relationship with our bodies and with the limitations of the human physique. He points out that technology is already generating “alternative anatomical constructs” thanks to tissue engineering and transplantation. His interest, he says, is in “post-evolutionary strategies for the body”—new ways of remaking ourselves.
In this respect, Stelarc’s works fulfil one of art’s vital functions: exploring cultural boundaries where consensus values have not yet been agreed. It is precisely because there are difficult ethical questions about reconstructive and plastic surgery, ownership of body tissues (see, for example, the story of Henrietta Lacks) and human enhancement, that we urgently need art to explore it. In this instance, if Stelarc’s third ear (now long gone from his anatomy) was indeed offensive, then it was usefully, rather than gratuitously, so.
The same can be said for the work of SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory at the University of Western Australia that aims to improve cultural understanding of scientific ideas and foster informed debate about biotechnology. SymbioticA trains artists to use the techniques of “wet biology,” such as cell culture and genetic manipulation. The fruits of these efforts were recently shown at an exhibition in Dublin called Visceral, which included, among other things, “semi-living worry dolls” based on the Guatemalan worry dolls to which you whisper your fears—but in this case made out of living human tissue cultured on biodegradable polymer scaffolds.
One of the founders and leaders of SymbioticA, the artist Oron Catts, was in London last week to teach a course on synthetic biology for artists at University College. Last Friday he joined Stelarc and Melbourne-based artist Nina Sellars, whose work focuses on human anatomy, at the GV Art Gallery in Marylebone, London, to discuss science and art. The gallery—the only one in the UK licensed to display human tissue—is currently hosting an exhibition assertively called ‘Art and Science: Merging Art & Science to Make a Revolutionary New Art Movement.’ This features several BioArt works by these artists and others, including Pig Wings (2002), a set of tiny wings made from pig bone marrow stem cells grown by Catts and SymbioticA colleague Ionat Zurr that could in principle be (but never were) transplanted onto live pigs.
Is there really anything revolutionary about merging art and science? Chairing the event, physicist Arthur I. Miller claimed that in fact the same spirit of coupling careful enquiry about the world with aesthetic elegance and imagination can be traced back to the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. Regardless of whether you buy that, the cross-fertilisation of art and science—Leonardo’s inventive sketches, Constable’s quasi-meteorological studies of clouds, the use of light and colour theory by the Impressionists, etc—is an almost hackneyed theme now.
But at Friday’s discussion the artists seemed reluctant to place themselves in any particular tradition of art-science fusion, and firmly rejected the implied hierarchy in Miller’s notion of ‘science-inspired art.’ “I’m not so much inspired by the science as disturbed by the possibilities that are being offered to me,” said Catts. “And I want to explore them.” Bio-artists are, they say, simply using the techniques and possibilities that current science and technology offer. The point is not to produce some kind of artistic representation of the science, and far less to use art to ‘illustrate’ the science. “We don’t want to have a situation where artists do bad research and scientists make bad art,” said Stelarc.
At its best, BioArt can force us to engage openly and non-dogmatically with the dilemmas that modern biology and biotechnology create, from our discomfort about human bodily manipulation to the creation of artificial life in laboratories. It is art that comes alive in every sense. Which is why it is so puzzling that, as Annabel Huxley—an energetic publicist for radical and creative scientific ideas—pointed out, art critics have resolutely tended to ignore this stuff while fawning over decomposing cows’ heads. Stelarc figures that this is because critics see their role as articulating what art really means—so they’re uncomfortable when the artists can do that for themselves. That’s clearly not the whole story, but on Friday’s showing it does seem that BioArt is blessed with some uncommonly sharp and penetrating minds.