“I do not try to find out how things work, I do not worry about reproducibility of any experiment that I perform. I’m worried about concepts, about meaning, about interpretation, and most importantly, extrapolation of meanings.”
Marta de Menezes is an artist that sits at the intersection between biology and art. Nature?, her first work in the realm of BioArt, was originally debuted in 2000 and still remains her most popular work. The idea for the installation came from an article she read about a group of scientists that were able to alter wing patterns of butterflies by performing small alterations during metamorphosis. She took that idea and applied an entirely aesthetic approach. With the help of a team of scientists, she used microsurgical modification to create asymmetrical wing patterns on live butterflies. The result was that these butterflies exhibited atypical wing patterns, but were unable to pass those traits on to offspring because their genes were not altered. The installation itself was a greenhouse that contained the butterflies, plants, and a microscope that showed visitors how the manipulations were achieved. Visitors were allowed to walk inside and see the butterflies up close.
The purpose of this piece was to force the viewers to question what is natural and what is not. Are these subtle, yet striking, manipulations enough to call these butterflies manmade? The viewer must decide whether this is a disturbing display of scientific ability, or merely a natural process guided by human hands. This installation raises the question of whether human limitations come from what we can do, or what we should do.
Even though the butterflies experience no pain from the process and lead completely normal lives, the ethicality of modifying a living being for the sake of art caused this piece to be fairly controversial when it was originally debuted.
“Although Menezes avoids the ethical and epistemological issue of her work, the artwork itself generates these discussions regardless of in spite of her intent. Thus [as a result] issues concerning the well-being of the butterflies have overshadowed aesthetic discussions.” (Broadhurst, Susan. (2007) Digital Practices: Aesthetic and Neuroesthetic Approaches to Performance and Technology)
While the above statement is perhaps true, one can’t help but feel that the controversy only adds to her overarching point. The installation was meant to direct attention towards the questionable ethicality of these sort of practices, so the fact that the piece received criticism for that is hardly surprising, and only helped to accomplish her goal.
Another piece of hers that is extremely similar is one of her “in progress” works, Leda. In this project, she is currently working on creating a humanized butterfly. What that essentially means is that they are attempting to successfully insert the genes of Yiannis Melanitis, one of the collaborating artists, into the butterfly. What’s particularly interesting about this piece is that she makes the decision to cross the line of genetic modification, a line she was so intent on maintaining in Nature?. This piece shows her evolution as an artist and desire to continue pressing controversial boundaries to create meaningful and contemplative work.
A comparable piece by another artist is Product of Eden by Mary Catherine Newcomb in 2010. In this installation, she used a 400 sq ft garden space to grow jumbo pink banana squashes in custom moulds, resulting in strange infant-like creatures growing amongst the foliage. This piece raises a lot of the similar questions that Menezes does in terms of ethicality and the intersect between science and art. It is another project that uses non-genetic modification of nature for artistic purposes, and raises questions of human involvement in the natural process. The mildly disturbing little humans incubating in the ground undoubtedly puts the viewer in the same sort of tension that Nature? does, and allows for the same sort of interactive experience as viewers are allowed to wander around the garden.
Her take on the piece- https://itp.nyu.edu/classes/germline-spring2013/files/2013/01/leonardoMenezes.pdf