- The Molecular Gaze
Editor-in-Chief: Michael Punt
Managing Editor: Bryony Dalefield
Associate Editor: Robert Pepperell
A full selection of reviews is published monthly on the LR website: <leonardoreviews.mit.edu>.
The Molecular Gaze surveys recent art involving biotechnology, genetics and DNA. This terrain is full of pitfalls not only because biotechnology presents profound social and ethical challenges, but also because the art under consideration does not comprise anything like a traditional school or movement. Artists have come to genetics and biotechnology by many different paths. Although these converge in art that in one way or another involves DNA, nothing like an identifiable look has resulted. Nor is this kind of art associated with any one place, even for purposes of exhibition.
Anker and Nelkin negotiate this complicated terrain with mixed success. Like many books of art commentary, The Molecular Gaze reads as much like a collection of notes as a work with a beginning, middle and end. The authors use art to illuminate a variety of subjects including eugenics, commodification of life, chimeras, "designer babies," childbirth and genetic reductionism (which defines people in terms of their DNA.) There is insightful commentary on how scientific discoveries change meaning as they move out of the laboratory into the larger culture, and on how molecular vision, which has come to dominate the assumptions of the biological sciences, borrows metaphors from texts and codes.
The most provocative chapter is on the new grotesque—freakish or malformed human figures that have appeared in art over the last decade and a half. These works range from Jake and Dinos Chapman's sculptures of conjoined children and Cindy Sherman's dismembered mannequins to Joel-Peter Witkin's photographs. Some of this work reflects the hopes and fears unleashed by biotechnology, but most does not, and at times the discussion wanders far afield.
The Molecular Gaze is a strikingly uneven book. It is handsomely laid out, and has more than 130 illustrations, many of them full-page and in color. But its visual wealth and many insights are mixed with misinformation and confusion. There are many factual errors. Some are minor—for example, there are two dwarfs in Velazquez's Las Meninas, not one, and the most prominent one is female, not male. And—disclosure time—I was surprised to read that my own work with plants involved "fictional genomes" when actually the plant genetic systems that I work with are intractably real. Other errors would be minor if a central feature of The Molecular Gaze were not its investigation of relationships between art and science. Though they produce tissue culture art, Catts, Zurr and Ben-Ary are discussed in a section titled "Transgenic Art." And, without explanation, the authors ascribe awareness of evolution to Daumier, working in the 1830s, a generation before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.
There are omissions, notably of Marta de Menezes, Heath Bunting, Andre Brodyk, and Karl Mihail and Tran Kim Trang. Relegated without discussion to a footnote are Brandon Ballengee, Adam Zaretsky, Natalie Jeremijenko, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey. Computer-based genetic art, an important field, is touched on in just two short paragraphs. The most troubling omission, however, is a sense of historical and ecological perspective. The Molecular Gaze does not claim to be a history but includes enough history, especially in the beginning, to give the impression that the past is covered. This is far from the case. There is no mention of animal breeding for aesthetic purposes, and only one passing reference to plant breeding, even though these are arenas in which art and genetics have been intersecting for centuries. Steichen's 1936 show at MOMA gets only a fleeting reference. The early literature of art and genetics is almost completely ignored. Helen and Newton Harrison are not mentioned, and ecoart is not discussed, even though much of it has genetic dimensions. The section devoted to chimeras and transgenics does not include so much as a thumbnail sketch...