Membrane: Biology and Art is a wonderfully conceived and curated show.
Membrane: Biology and Art, at Boston Cyberarts Gallery, 141 Green Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130. Located in the Green Street T Station on the Orange Line. 617-522-6710. Friday, Saturday & Sundays 12 – 6 p.m., through May 1.
By Mark Favermann
When I first heard about the exhibit, I thought, irrationally, that I might have to wear a Hazmat suit or a surgical face mask if I wanted to safely view art and biology intertwined. But, happily, there was no need for protection from contamination at this provocative and often compellingly visual new show at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery.
The exhibition explores the relationship between art and science in the contemporary world. Examining the reciprocal nature of biology and art, the exhibit space is filled with works that make use of nanoscopic neurons, slime mold ceramics, conceptual compost, and natural installations. There’s nothing to fear, but living spiders, scorpions, and earthworms creep and crawl in this show. By marrying scientific research with artistic inquiry, the pieces in Membrane pushes the boundaries of human curiosity and our relationship to the natural world.
The artists showcased in the exhibit take a wide variety of approaches to the integration of bioscience and aesthetics. Provocatively, Natalie Andrew’s slime mold specimens ingest various materials including cobalt, copper, and other elements. Meal time leaves finely drawn marks that suggest the minute gestural lines drawn by miniature painters or tiny draftsmen. She captures their expressive action painting in a kiln-fixed glaze, producing a quite stunning array of beautiful pottery.
Trangenic Silk (2011) by Joe Davis (also entitled Neimand weiss das ich Rumpelstilchskin heiss!), makes use of genetically engineering silk worms to spin gold. Several generations of silkworms needed to be modified to produce a silk that could be combined with precious metals. The piece pays playful homage to the fairy tale of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Because the silkworms are genetically modified, only their “gold silk” product could be exhibited — the silkworms themselves must be kept in a secure laboratory!
Inspired by Tibetan prayer flags, Davis’ Prayer Flags are printed with the code for the genetic markers of such incurable diseases as cancer, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. These flags were sent off to laboratories researching these afflictions; they were sent back to the artist. Davis’ collage sends a strong message that dovetails spirituality and science.
Davis’ metallic Self-assembling Clock is a jar holding the components of a disassembled clock. According to the artist, life spontaneously ‘self-assembled,’ so he wanted to experiment whether these simple mechanical parts could ‘self-assemble’ into a functioning clock. Bottom line: this piece is Steampunk minus the steam.
David Kim’s Unsent Unburdened Subconscious Subterranean is, at first glance, a compost heap cradled in a material sling. But it is much more than that on closer inspection. The compost is created by feeding an earthworm colony drafts of unsent letters the artist has written to his estranged mother. The letters deal with the artist coming out as a gay man. By way of a buried hydrophone microphone, viewers are invited to listen to the earthworm colony in action. To my ears it sounds a lot like a sonogram for a pregnancy test. This work showcases communicates of various sorts — mother/son interpersonal as well as interspecies. Here, BioArt attempts to transcend human social and personal relationships.
Stephanie Dowdy-Nava and Saúl Nava’s HYBRID HABITATS: BIO-ABSTRACTIONS IN ULTRAVIOLET from ART±BIO Collaborative is made up of eight installations made from natural materials and found objects collected during field studies in the Bosque Seco region of Puerto Rico. Inspired by the Surrealist shadow box art of Joseph Cornell, these works gracefully juxtapose natural elements. There is a poetic quality to the presentation: a UV light is used to expose the natural fluorescence and UV reflectance of the elements within the installations, abstract arrangements of the microhabitat of the Centruroides griseus species of scorpion and other arachnids that are abundant in the extreme environs of this tropical dry forest.
Arts Fuse fun fact: it seems that all scorpion species fluoresce under UV light. The reasons for this are a mystery to scientists. Ironically, it is unknown whether scorpions can see UV light, so it possible that the viewer can study these secretive creatures and the natural elements in their abstracted habitats in ways they cannot see themselves. Utilizing the intersection of the arts, biology, natural history, and the life sciences to foster social dialogue and creative exchange of ideas, ART±BIO is a dynamic, non-profit organization whose aim is to nurture the public’s understanding of science, nature, and art through novel collaborations, research, engagement, and youth education. The natural environment is its aesthetic and intellectual canvas.
Seth Shipman’s elegant, seemingly surreal photograph Zen Neuron (2015) shows a single human neuron, cultured in isolation. Miro-like, this neuron was differentiated from an induced stem cell, which itself was derived by reprogramming skin cells from a healthy adult donor. Another Arts Fuse fun fact: the skin cell donor was Boston Cyberarts founder and director George Fifield!
In the absence of other neurons, the brain cell shown here forms connections, or synapses, with itself. Information, in the form of electrical impulses, is sent down the axon in orange and received at synapses onto the dendrites and cell body in green — these messages are integrated,and sent again to the axon. BioArt shaped at an aesthetically appealing cellular level.
Jessica Polka’s Crochet Lysozymes:Bacteria+DNA, A Sampler of Bacterial Anatomy is a chart of various bacteria. She is currently a postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA. These versions of prokaryotic cells on display exhibit an astonishing range of sizes and shapes, their flexible forms carrying out various functions and existing in varying environments. Through the use of woven wool, the artist underscores the eloquent, graphic quality that these cell elements can take in terms of shape, form, and size. This fascinating piece is representative of the considerable strengths of this show: erasing the line between biology and art becomes an invitation to expand our visions of both.
An urban designer, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Mark created the Looks of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches in Brookline, MA, and the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002. He has previously written for The Phoenix, Art New England, American Craft Magazine, Boston Herald, Blueprint (UK), Design (UK), and Leonardo.