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Exploring A Monstrous Future in '2018 Frankenstein: Art, Science and Society Today As Seen in Bioart'


Exploring A Monstrous Future in '2018 Frankenstein: Art, Science and Society Today As Seen in Bioart'
2018 Frankenstein: Art, Science and Society Today As Seen in Bioart. Image courtesy of Eye of Gyre Gallery Shibuya.

"The future is necessarily monstrous... A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable and programmable tomorrow.” - Jacques Ranciere (1995).

In the interstices between artistic practice and biotechnology, through a genre known as bioart, perhaps the line between a monstrous future and a programmable tomorrow is not as clearly demarcated as Ranciere made it out to be. If anything, the future might very well be both monstrous and calculable.

These questions lay at the heart of 2018 Frankenstein: Art, Science and Society Today As Seen In Bioart at Eye of GYRE Gallery Shibuya. Curated by Yosuke Takahashi of the 21st Century Art Museum, Kanazawa, the show at once pays homage to the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelly’s famous 18th-century novel, and emerging bioart practitioners in Japan’s contemporary art scene.

Bioart practice is described by artist and writer Frances Stracey as "a crossover of art and biological sciences, with living matter, such as genes, cells or animals, as its new media." Even though it had its beginnings in the 1980s, it was only from 2000 onwards -  following Eduardo Kac’s genetically-modified fluorescent green rabbit, Alba – that bioart began to be recognized as art form. The contemporary art scene in Japan too eventually picked up on the movement, and in 2010, BIOART.JP was established by a collective of artists and scientists from Tama Art University, Tokyo University, and Waseda University to act as a network portal for fellow bioart practitioners in the country.

Four of them are included in 2018 Frankenstein: Mami Hirano, Sae Honda, Aki Inomata, and BCL. Their works, most of which incorporated bio-matter and biotechnology, are spread out across a two-room exhibition space on the third floor of GYRE Shibuya. Meanwhile, the show itself is divided into three segments mapped onto themes found in Shelly’s novel: Resurrection, A New Generation, and Biopolitics.

In Resurrection, Takahashi revisits Victor Frankenstein's successful defeat of Death by giving life to a Creature pieced together from the fragments of the dead. However, in today’s circumstances, with the developments in stem cell technology and genome editing, as well as the commercialization of patentable bio-matter, the idea of “resurrecting the dead in fragments” no longer needs to hew to the forms and functions of the original. In fact, it appears that fractal resurrection is in itself a whole new creation which no longer belongs to the parent host but its creator. In Pure Human Project (2016), Tina Gorjanc entertains the idea of harvesting and patenting human DNA to produce leather for luxury goods through her human leather jacket, bag and backpack prototypes. Whereas Diemut Strebe's Sugababe (2014) takes visitors through her journey in creating a living replica of Vincent van Gogh's missing ear from tissue-engineered cartilage.

However, for Mami Hirano, resurrection could also mean defying nature itself by bringing to life bio-matter which was previously non-existent or deemed impossible. In Revive A Unicorn (2014), Hirano serves us a unicorn (made from non-biological matter, ironically) on an operating table with its stomach cut open, as air compressor feeding pumps attached to it attempts to bring the creature back to life.

Mami Hirano, Revive A Unicorn (2014).

All this while, the unicorn has remained a creature found only in fantastical telling. Millennial obsession with unicorn aesthetics might have seen to the proliferation of unicorn ephemera ranging from mugs to makeup palettes to onesies and pet costumes. Nevertheless, there has yet to be an attempt to genetically modify existing animals to bring the unicorn into reality.

However, when we consider that there are already pedigree animal species bred specifically for their aesthetical merits, in addition to the implications that Kac’s Alba might have on the potentiality of science to create species that do not exist, might not technology and ambitions of bio-science in the future allow for the bringing of the unicorn into existence, to resurrect it from the world of the imagination into reality? Perhaps this is the strongest impact Hirano’s artificial unicorn has on her viewers: even if science could potentially bring such creatures to life, should it be done for the sake of “art”?

Having troubled us with questions surrounding art and bioethics, Takahashi drags our attention away from a speculative future to more present critiques on industrial practices and their impact on the environment in the second segment of the show, A New Generation. For this segment, Takahashi referenced the presence of the Arctic glacier at the start and end of Shelly’s Frankenstein, a symbolic testament to the place and influence of the physical environment in our daily lives. As such, most of the works featured dealt with ideas pertaining to how living beings relate to their physical environment.

Even though the print of Robert Smithson’s 1969 site-specific work Glue Pour and Mark Dion’s Tar-Pickled Bird sculptures (2003) occupy the centre of the room, Sae Honda’s Everybody Needs A Rock (2016) and Aki Inomata’s Why Not Hand Over A ‘Shelter’ To Hermit Crab? – Border – (2009) made equally powerful statements despite being shown in modest set-ups at either corner of the room.

Sae Honda, Everybody Needs A Rock (2016).

Honda’s “rocks” are made from new geological materials: plastics. Sourced from plastic waste in various urban locations, Honda had melted and polished these materials to be turned into rock pieces – a mimicry of how rocks are formed in nature. With the abundance of plastics on the Earth’s surface, most of which are non-biodegradable, it is ever more likely that fossils and rocks of the future will contain them instead of biological matter. In fact, Honda’s “rocks” drew inspiration from plastiglomerate, a new type of mineral rock found in Hawaii made up of a composite of plastics and existing bio-matter.

In comparison, Inomata’s piece incorporated a living bio-matter in it: a hermit crab. Sitting alone in the tank, the hermit crab calls as its home a shell made by Inomata from clear plastic. The work on its own stands both as a reflective statement on the migrant situation today, but also on the ways in which animals have been adapting to changes that humans have introduced into the environment. But then there is also the other lingering question: is it ethical to use live animals as part of art which is produced for and consumed by human beings for their enjoyment?

Aki Inomata, Why Not Hand Over A ‘Shelter’ To Hermit Crab? – Border – (2009).

This ethical conundrum resurfaces when we encounter another work by Inomata in the show, her five-minute video art girl, girl, girl...(2012), in which female bagworms were given textile bits from clothes worn by female models to spin into their chrysalis instead of leaves. Arguably, female bagworms remain in their cocoons throughout most of their adult life as moths, hence having textiles rather than leaves do little harm to them. Even so, one cannot help leaving the space without wondering about the place of animals and bioethics in the production of bioart.

Still from Aki Inomata, girl, girl, girl... (2002).

The final segment, Biopolitics, is borrowed from the term made popular by French philosopher Michel Foucault that deals with how regimes of authority make use of knowledge about human bodies to exert power and control over groups of people. Victor Frankenstein living in the 18th century was limited in his ability to predict and control the actions of his Creature; he did not have extensive DNA extraction and modification technology as we do now in 2018. Neither was his biological data about the Creature uploaded on commercially-managed databases, as is done to DNA data samples today, which in turn could be sold and traded without their owners’ knowledge or consent. If anything, such technology can prove to be extremely invasive, as shown in Heather Dewey-Harborg’s Stranger Visions (2012), which was built around DNA samples collected from dropped cigarette butts. It confers a heightened degree of power to those who manage to get their hands on such data, since they could reveal everything about a person from ancestry to life expectations.

However, Tokyo-based duo BCL’s installation project, BLP-2000B: DNA Blacklist – Printer, takes this question further by questioning the technology itself: what if access to such data falls into the hands of destructive power? Their DNA printer generates DNA sequences every few minutes on a seemingly never-ending roll of paper, eerily reminiscent of death lists that have emerged in coups and wars throughout history where individuals marked for execution are added to them without much consideration.

BCL,  BLP-2000B: DNA Blacklist - Printer (2018).

2018 Frankenstein might be a small exhibition, but within its two-room space, it houses works that force visitors to confront issues pertaining to ethics within and outside art practice, as well as in biotechnological developments: just because we can create something, does it mean we should? Who then would be the monster – our creations, or ourselves? Bioart becomes the perfect space to navigate these debates, and as Takahashi demonstrated, one does not need a large show of artists to facilitate them; one only needs artists and works that are incisive enough to do so.

2018 Frankenstein: Art, Science and Society Today As Seen In Bioart is ongoing at Eye of GYRE Gallery, Shibuya, until October 14.

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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