Over the past two years, we’ve all had to learn a bit of biology. We learned how airborne germs spread, what mRNA is, and how viruses mutate. Simultaneously, many of us have spent months estranged from our fellow human beings, communing instead with other species, whether through gardening or adopting pets. Given this abundant interaction between species, a new wave of bio art is blooming.
Bio art is that work done with non-human living beings, either as materials or as collaborators. In these pages you will find essays on art made with plants, microbes, fungi and even octopuses. Provocative uses of synthetic biology marked the beginnings of bioart: the most famous, Eduardo Kac’s shiny green rabbit named Alba was genetically modified in 2000 with a fluorescent protein extracted from jellyfish. But as Claire Pentecost details in her contribution to this issue, “Symbiotic Art,” this wave of new bioart – which tends to position non-human beings as sources of wisdom or inspiration rather than playthings – has begun. even before the pandemic. Climate change has led to a growing awareness of all the other species with which we are intimately linked in this complex web of relationships that is the ecosystem.
For less ecological artists, learning about other species can lead to reflection on the meaning of life itself. Several artists in this issue have turned to a particular species for a glimpse into another way of being. Xiaojing Yan chose reishi mushrooms, while Tuomas A. Laitinen opted for octopus, and Precious Okoyomon studied a vine known as kudzu. You will find many laboratory workshops and usefully enlisted bacteria there, but you will also notice that organic art has crept into less expected artistic practices. In an essay on postminimalist Los Angeles sculptor Liz Larner, for example, Andrew Russeth traces the dynamism of her work back to her very first installation in 1987, which was teeming with bacterial cultures; it also discusses the lesser-known contemporary biotic interventions of Dieter Roth and Gordon Matta-Clark.
Organic art is loaded with ethical questions. How can you “collaborate” with a species you can’t talk to? What does it mean to attribute human meanings and metaphors to other organisms? While some artists and writers take strong stances and offer bold methodologies, for others it’s this intractable tension that makes the genre so fascinating.
—Emily Watlington, associate editor at Art in Americais the editor-in-chief of the Bio Art issue.
Eric-Paul Riege by Ellie Duke
In fiber works and performances, New Mexico artist Eric-Paul Riege interweaves the traditional and contemporary strands of his Diné/Navajo identity.
Theo Tyson, curator of fashion arts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, shares five current interests.
New Monuments by Mabel O. Wilson with Sara Zewde
A Columbia University historian discusses current approaches to commemorating American slavery with a Harvard University landscape architect
by Chen & Lampert
Artist-curators Howie Chen and Andrew Lampert offer ironic take on the dilemmas of the art world.
Playing Dice with the Universe by Alexander Provan
A former sign painter, artist Tauba Auerbach highlights potentially meaningful patterns in every substance and object, regardless of function or size.
Chelsea Haines on Charles Dellheim Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Modernized the Art World and James McAuley House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France.
by Claire Pentecost
Art made with living materials helps redefine humanity.
by Andrew Russeth
Liz Larner’s first experiments with shaped microbes
NOT ALL MICROBES
by Josie Thaddeus-Johns
Artists are finding new beneficial roles for once reviled microorganisms.
by Kavior Moon
Changing visions of plant life reflect our troubled socio-economic dynamics.
Conrad Ventur interviewed by Emily Watlington
Conrad Ventur sees plants as conduits for cooperation and memory. As a gift, a print accompanies the article.
Maria Thereza Alves samples “Seeds of Change”, her ongoing project on the global spread of botanical species through colonialism, the slave trade and mass migration.
GO BEYOND HUMAN
by Louis Bury
Tuomas A. Laitinen probes the relationship between language and matter, human and non-human beings.
MUSHROOMS AS METAPHRES
by Emily Watlington
Many international artists use mushrooms to represent interspecific cooperation.
Sophie Haigney on Sofia Crespo
Minh Nguyen on Zheng Bo
Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Alexander R. Bigman
CHAIM SOUTINE AND WILLEM DE KOONING
Orangerie Museum, Paris
“FRESHWATER HARD STONE”
New Museum, New York
Swiss Institute, New York
Morgan Library and Museum, New York
Gagosian, New York
Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut
Nina Johnson, Miami
Krannert Art Museum, Champagne, Illinois
Halle für Kunst Steiermark, Graz, Austria