A new category of life
NoArk 11 is a work in two parts – the first easily identifiable – among them a dead mouse, a stuffed crow, rabbit, rat and two headed bird. Hidden behind red colored panel, they are the objects one might find in a natural history museum. The natural history display is a collection of dead animals reflecting those that may have evolved over millions of years.
The other side of the display case, under a blue colored panel, is something quite different. It’s alive, and it’s growing. A mixture of different cells from different species, it is a new category of life that has evolved over just weeks during the Super Human exhibition.
The work by the Tissue Culture and Art Project is a study of contrasts – dead versus the living, wet and moist versus the freeze dried, the new versus the old.
Artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr have been working with ‘semi living things’ since 1996, when they introduced tissue-engineered entities by harnessing electrical activity from fish neurons cultured over silicon and pyrex chips.
Catts – who wrote a thesis in the mid 1990s looking at the possibility of growing living surfaces over inanimate objects - has a background in industrial design, while Zurr trained in photography.
Both were influenced by scientific advances in biotechnology, seeing the artistic applications in the monstrosity and dystopia embodied in the widely publicised experiment that saw a human ear being grown on a mouse’s back. Their use of tissue technologies as a medium for artistic expression leads viewers to question perceptions of life, identity and the position of the human in relation to other living things and the environment.
Zurr said NoArk 11 is also a response to a reflection about the beauty of creation, illustrating how scientists have classified the natural world in a rational and orderly manner.
“The natural history museum was created as a reaction to the cabinet of curiosities, where in the past wealthy gentlemen collected freaks of nature and put them on display as oddities. However, what we are again seeing is a re-emergence of the cabinet of curiosities because of biotechnology,” Zurr said.
“With biotechnology, what we are seeing happening is a breakdown of categories, as chimeric identities do not adhere to any taxonomical order.”
NoArk 11 points to the taxonomical crisis faced by unclassifiable biotechnology. Inside the bioreactor are living cells made from a collection of different species.
The living cells and tissues grown in NoArk 11 during the Super Human exhibition will originate from a combination of animal, plant and human organisms. According to Zurr, this work deliberately contravenes traditional taxonomical concepts in light of biological advances.
Dealing with living material in a gallery environment, however, presents its own problems. The cells and tissue must be specifically grown for the show in a double contained cell bag which will sit inside a cabinet for extra safety.
“We have an automated system where we use a cell bag that has enough nutrient media for two weeks. We do the preparation in a laboratory near the gallery and at the end of the exhibition, we take it back to the lab and kill the solution with bleach.”
It might sound more like an experiment than art – and comes under the term “bio-art” which refers to a variety of artistic practices involving both the life sciences and technology. “When we first started working with scientists, we discovered that the reality of a laboratory is actually very mundane. We were trained by scientists so we didn’t have to look over their shoulders and now we have 13 years experience in tissue culture and engineering,” Zurr said.
“We can now train other scientists and also other artists. With NoArk 11 we are presenting the work of the laboratory to audiences in a public space, showing them what is usually hidden.”
For media enquiries, photos and interviews with artists, contact RMIT Gallery Media Coordinator Evelyn Tsitas at RMIT Gallery
Tel: +61 3 9925 1716