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Ryan Piurek
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Monday, October 2, 2006

The bioartist confronts Human Nature

Oct. 3, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It's the year 5000 A.D. in Brooklyn, N.Y., after the earth has met the devastating effects of global warming. Human civilization decays at the bottom of a vast ocean as her buildings succumb to nature's destructive will and flora and fauna reclaim the earth. (A description of Alexis Rockman's painting "Manifest Destiny")

Alexis Rockman, "Manifest Destiny," 2003-04, oil and acrylic on four wood panels, 8' x 24'

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"Both artists and scientists share an affinity for experimentation and a desire to forge new frontiers in their fields, looking for and creating something that has never been attempted or discovered before," said Betsy Stirratt, director of Indiana University Bloomington's School of Fine Arts (SoFA) Gallery. "There is a profound curiosity in both disciplines, with a desire to experiment using whatever materials are available to them. For artists, the idea of scientific research is not far removed from their normal routine of artistic practice."

Like painter Alexis Rockman, whose dim, eerie and apocalyptic Manifest Destiny confronts the consequences of human advancement, the visual artists chosen for the upcoming SoFA Gallery exhibition Human Nature I: The Natural World (Oct. 20-Nov. 18) are using their creative abilities to enhance contemporary discourse about the life sciences.

With each new discovery in the field -- including those in the areas of stem cell research, the human genome, cloning and genetic engineering -- they have brought to the forefront ethical and moral issues related to scientific developments. Their works address ideas of the landscape, our shared humanity, environmental issues, health care and population, while incorporating cultural ideas about nature and our place within it.

"Artists in the 'genetic age' have once again taken the initiative to create works that have never been experienced before," Stirratt said. "These works of art utilize scientific discoveries, and artists are often the very first reactors and consumers of new technological information."

More than 15 national and international artists and scientists will participate in the Human Nature I exhibition, which will feature examples of painting, sculpture, video projection and animation, sound works and installation. With a primary focus on imaging that depicts the natural world as it relates to scientific thought, it is the first in a two-part series of exhibits and events to be presented in 2006 and 2007 at the contemporary art gallery. The second portion of the exhibit, Human Nature II: Future Worlds, will be presented at the SoFA Gallery from Feb. 9 to March 9, 2007, and include works that examine scientific experimentation, biological materials and living systems. All events are free and open to the public.

Today's artists are questioning and participating in all kinds of biological and technical research, from utilizing the body and manipulating nature and its resources, to employing living tissue and organisms within their works, Stirratt said. Artists are also collaborating with scientists to create new works of art that are effectively questioning the validity of new biotechnology research and its effect on culture. The current manipulation of life-based tissue and genetic material and the controversies surrounding ownership bring into question ideas of creative autonomy in both artistic and scientific spheres.

In his "Blood Work" series (2003-present), IU fine arts professor Arthur Liou confronts his daughter Vivian's struggle with leukemia through the use of digital video and sound installations. Above: "Hairline," which deals with hair loss, an inevitable side effect of chemotherapy. The video metaphorically tracks the one-year period during which Vivian's hair grew back, thus signifying the gradual return of her health.

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"Because we are not informed as a culture about the transformations that are occurring in the scientific and commercial realm, it is difficult to make informed moral judgments about these new technologies," Stirratt said. "Artists and scientists alike must determine exactly what is permissible in today's standards for the use and manipulation of these raw materials. Bioartists are using these materials to create works that are wholly new, and our current attitudes about these works will affect the fate of nature as an institution."

The Human Nature project is supported by New Frontiers, New Perspectives and the College Arts and Humanities Initiative at IU and the Indiana Arts Commission. For more information, visit SoFA's Web site at