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Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts, sigmund freud wrote. But what if the flower contains human DNA? As does edunia—the petunia eduardo kac genetically altered as a work of art to carry his own DNA: a “new kind of self that is partially flower and partially human,” as he describes it. Why does looking upon the peaceful scene of the artist calmly watering his eponymous hybrid [End Page 287] (eduardo + petunia) complicate freud’s observation? Is it because closer inspection reveals this genetically engineered “plantimal” (plant + animal) to be the “living image of human blood rushing through the veins of a flower,” as edunia is described in kac’s artist’s statement? Is it because the art work is a living being, in contrast to a static painting or sculpture, as well as a visual metaphor?
That is, does the complication of Freud’s statement come from the ease with which the comforting can flip into the monstrous if something thought to be familiar, ordinary, is suddenly revealed as bizarre—as with beautifully tooled leather that upon closer inspection is discovered to be human skin? Or conversely, is it the way something monstrous—a nonhuman who appears human—can become accepted, natural, a plantimal that is, after all, beautiful, restful to look upon? More expansively, does the complication result because truisms such as Freud’s, as well as the grand old stories we used to tell about the plants and animals of the earth, including ourselves, are becoming not so much false as irrelevant in the face of the new creatures like Edunia—an icon of hope inspired by our brave new world of genetic promise even as we sing “Auld Lang Syne” for all of the meanings we used to think were inherent in the oldest words of our language: “plant,” “animal,” “human”. . .? That is, if “anatomy is destiny,” as Freud also observed, what does this anatomy say of our destiny?
EVEN NON-LIVING PORTRAITS REFLECT THEIR SOCIETY
Every portrait is at least partially a self-portrait, as every portrait also echoes what stands beyond the frame, especially its creator. This is especially true when its creator is also its subject: Rembrandt’s brooding self portraits; Picasso’s cubist painting of himself; Marc Quinn’s self-portrait bust made of his own frozen blood; or Edunia, an artwork in which we are literally looking at the artist himself, albeit at the molecular level engineered through genetic code, expressed in [End Page 288] the veins of a flower. Each portrait is as much about a manner of seeing, a manner of being, even if technology has progressively disconnected seeing from knowing, and relocated the site of the “self” from the surface appearance of a face; to psychological fracturing and subjective, multiple viewpoints; to genetic stuff, to . . . to where? Not (only) in the flower, but also no longer (only) in the artist—or in what used to be thought of as “the artist,” whereas the artist, like the “self,” is now dispersed into “the many.” Technology, and the world views it helps engender, have, in other words, always been coauthors of the portraits they are used to create: for example, the mannequin-like stares and postures of portrait subjects (sometimes literally held in place by braces) forced upon them by the long exposures required of early cameras. As the technology of portraiture evolved, so did portraiture, and so did the “self” depicted. Yet it isn’t the newness or even the esoteric tools Kac employed to make Edunia that distinguishes this self-portrait (“self-portrait” being a characterization Kac himself wouldn’t use). Rather, what distinguishes Kac’s techniques are their expressions of the vast and interrelated social and technological networks that make up contemporary life, and how these networks are allowing a new conception of life—both animal and plant life—to emerge.
Everyone has had their blood drawn: as common as the daily mail...