Research over the last fifty years, including work in biotechnologies and in genetics, now enables us to intervene in the development and growth of life forms, raising the possibility of parlaying advances in science into benefits for society. On the one hand, the ethical assumptions and potential dangers surrounding these practices raise concerns in the public mind. But on the other hand, they have become reference points around which artists can develop their research, enabling creators to make biotechnologies their artistic medium.
Until quite recently, artists (Stelarc, Kac, Orlan) addressed advances in plastic surgery and in tissue engineering with the intent to shock, even as, at the ontological level, they were investigating the body’s union with the world. Today, however, these practises comprise the tools with which artists choose to express themselves. By distancing themselves from the desire to transgress, there is a strong return to meaning, and to the intention of selecting that which is suitable for communicating that meaning. It is the subjective and existential aspect that is taking concrete form through the chosen media. These means do not characterise the theme: rather it is the poetics, the narration and the message expressed by the individual that give meaning to the media.
We may interpret the works by Marta De Menezes (Lisbon, 1975) and Dario Neira (Turin, 1963), presented in the exhibition Body Nature, in this perspective. Lying within the macro-sphere of Bio-art and Biotech Art – they are sometimes even defined as bioartists – their visions are visions of the world, frequently filtered with instruments typical of the laboratory and thus belonging to science, but they are worldviews that tell of a precise poetics of existence: of the biological body in the world. Body Nature refers to nature as a body, but also to the body in the normal meaning of the word. Made of nature and immersed in it: a living and communicating agent in the world.
To present works by De Menezes and by Neira in a single context means finding a common matrix and a common spirit, an affinity that goes beyond instruments and subjects which, while apparently similar, additionally blur the categories of male and female gender. The relation between the two sets of works may be found in the two artists’ attentive and critical vision of realty: the same vision that pushes them to investigate the ethical problems raised by medical and scientific practices now in use, and more generally, to consider the way these practises are integrated into society.
The works exhibited are thus characterised by the almost exclusive use of living materials (DNA, proteins, cells, bacteria) and, supported by clinical research, demonstrate that the organic components that they have in common join the body to the rest of life. If man and the world share the same nature, then the body is none other than the filter through which the inner and the outer communicate.
For example, Proteic Portrait, 2003/2007, by Marta De Menezes is a protein portrait of the artist. The installation is presented as a full-scale atelier, a place of creation and experimentation. Unlike the stereotypical easel, or other means of expression more recently used by artists, this installation is a laboratory in which artistic and scientific experiences merge, each functional to the other, the goal in this case being to construct a portrait of the artist. It is a work-in-progress that combines the impact of the living sculpture (a sequence of amino acids contained in a refrigerating cell) with the scientific process (instrumentation, video documentation under the microscope, details of the protocols) behind its creation.
Portraiture, in the sense of representing a subject’s physical appearance, but also his or her psychological and inner aspects, characterises Functional Portraits, 2003, again by Marta De Menezes, and Somato Landscape, by Dario Neira.
In Functional Portraits, through Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), a biomedical imaging technique that evaluates the functionality of an organ or system, De Menezes reconstructs a cerebral map of the brain regions engaged in a specific task.
Somato-Landscape, 2011, by Dario Neira, is a scan-self-portrait, again created through the use of medical instruments including Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). The living image recreated by the Turin artist is a representation of himself that is minimal, essential, and organic — yet still capable of reflecting the subject’s emotions and intimate nature. Abdomen, legs and arms – in a word only the soma that is the set of the body’s cells – constitute the regions subjected to NMR and they are reproduced in a photocomposition. Neira thus reflects upon the transformation of his body into a landscape in the ambiguous – and fascinating – sensation of exploring the inner world. Somato Landscape is not only an effigy but an experience of the body, of its existence.
To enter the body, according to Roberto Marchesini, “signifies first and foremost entering into the ontogenetic and ontological heart of a human being, into his thoughts and emotions.”1 The somatic landscape through which one is visually led can become a territory and, if it is converted through virtual simulation, can be transformed into an environment to be inhabited. In some senses, to inhabit the body is the equivalent of giving an interpretation of our shell as macrocosm and microcosm: a vision of outer space in analogy with the bodily space, and vice versa. It is an ecology of the body and of the world that implies an increasingly responsible “bodily dialogue.”
The works by De Menezes and Neira speak, in a certain sense, of a third nature, a dimension that comprises the union of art, science and the sacred. Being aware of bodily processes and mechanisms, human beings have always wondered about the mystery of life and death. A question that pushes man to try to attribute meaning to his existence and to the transitory nature of life. The malaise generated by knowing that one is inside a mortal body may, in fact, feed phobic psychoses, such as the fear of microbes and viruses that carry lethal diseases.
In Welcome (Doormat), 2011, for example, a site-specific artwork by Neira for Parco Arte Vivente that consists of a large walk-on doormat, the Turin artist impresses a word onto a surface, a statement apparently indicating entrance to the exhibition and greeting the visitor. But the declaration has been laid down in the form of colonies of saprophytic bacteria, in the same microbial concentration that can be transmitted through a handshake. It is a welcome statement into the bacterial dimension that inevitably surrounds us in any environment2, microbes that we try obsessive-compulsively to debilitate with disinfectant gels and detergents, ignoring the important aspect of their ability to preserve and protect us from diseases.3 The wish to control organic and bacterial life, or the desire for eternal youth generative from our fear of death, also brings to light a transhumanist thought: that the body is only an interface of the mind, merely functional. The mind, taking the idea to its extremes, might someday live autonomously embedded in a robotic body.
Yet according to Roberto Marchesini, “the body conglomerates in the awareness”4, that is to say the body represents the set of biological and consciousness-related systems that, together with experience (and here we come close to the British empiricists and to some of the latest ideas from Gestalt therapy), reflect the impulses and emotions that, from the molecular standpoint, originate in the body.5
Untitled (Forever), 2010, again by Neira, comprises a celebration of text in which artistic thought, medical practices and the emotional sphere come together. On a piece of gauze, using surgical needles that are left in sight and suture thread, the word “forever” is embroidered. This is a poetic transcription of the common desire to abide — in a word to survive forever. But, as Neira’s “tapestry” clearly shows, what remains unchanged is, and will be, only the illusion of eternal duration. Little by little the suture threads will be reabsorbed by the cotton fibres in their contact with oxygen. It will take longer than it would with actual organic tissues, but disappearance will come.
For the two artists, lastly, the mystery of birth and death, over and above the biological nature of the body and free of any religious connotation, is linked to the sacred, the manifestation and revelation of the word. Whereas De Menezes analyses this using the words of the Gospel according to St. John – “In the beginning was the word” – Neira, in Claustrum, investigates the sacred by turning to a different narration: Le ceneri di Gramsci by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
In the beginning there Was the Word, 2008/2011, a title taken from the opening of the Gospel according to St. John (1:1-18), also underlies the work by Marta De Menezes. On an ancient Bible, open at St. John’s Gospel, some shoots appear. Following a Portuguese Christmas tradition typical of the Region of Antelejo, the installation is a reflection on the mystery of life. The artist investigates birth, growth and death as processes intrinsic to the natural world, but often filtered through popular beliefs rooted in the collective imagination, in religion, or arising from the promise of the world of IT. No form of life is thus given forever. Everything is subject to change. In the beginning there Was the Word is the demonstration of how an artwork may literally be alive and subject to the cycle of beginnings and endings.
Likewise Inner Cloud, 2003, another of the Portuguese artist’s works, can be understood within this same scenario. It is inspired by the novel Baltasar and Blimunda (1982) by Josè Saramago, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in which, to escape from the bubonic plague afflicting Europe, the two protagonists follow a flying machine made with the souls of the dead, souls that are described as clouds. Inner Cloud is composed of the artist’s DNA placed in a test-tube with ethanol.
The DNA does not mix with the liquid to form a single solution, but rather forms a sort of floating cloud. If the container is shaken the cloud appears, allowing us to see the molecular conglomeration of DNA with the naked eye. Thus, for De Menezes, Inner Cloud asks the question: “Does our soul lie in our DNA?”
In Claustrum, 2011, on the contrary, Le ceneri di Gramsci by Pier Paolo Pasolini provides the narrative loan for Dario Neira’s sound installation. Subdivided into twelve series, following themes such as nature, the body and time, the audio sequence developed by the artist gives life to a hybrid acoustic entity, in which to each word may correspond a step, a breath, a beat. The multiplicity of meanings contained in Neira’s work is thus expressed by orchestrating the particular relationship between language and the image evoked by the word. The sacred becomes a poem to fertilise the body of reality, to make things speak through the mind and through the emotions. It coincides with the simple gestures and articles of the everyday, which can be related to the actions and to the impulses of the body, like breathing or the involuntary movement of the heart, culminating in death and its ashes, the ultimate symbol of the union between human material essence and the earth that conserves it.
1- Roberto Marchesini, Post-human. Verso nuovi modelli di esistenza, Ed. Bollati e Boringhieri, Torino, 2002, p. 209
2 – Mario Perniola, Il Sex appeal dell’inorganico, Einaudi, Torino, 1994. p.67
3 – Robert Marchesini, Ibidem, p. 216.
The author maintains that “Urban culture promotes an idea of cleanliness that is intimately connected with the aseptic, giving rise to a sort of revolt against all things organic; this ranges from biophobia, fear of the microorganisms present in expectorate, faeces, organic liquids, to zoointollerance, discomfort concerning all forms of animals (larvae, mites, zoonosis, insects, parasites)”.
4 - Roberto Marchesini, Ibidem, p. 217
5 – Candace B. Pert, Molecole di emozioni. Il perché delle emozioni che proviamo, Ed. Tea, Milano, 2007, p. 83.