Bio-Art: The Struggle of Life Over Death

STORY BY James Sullivan

Published: November 5, 2013

Now bacteria and other denizens of the primordial soup can create works of art...or be the supply, as I discovered in a chance encounter when trying to find the work of Ernst Haeckel on Google, who pioneered naturalistic art, fascinated by the idea of how many turned to the natural sciences for inspiration in the nineteenth century, a time when artists who entered such a new and daring field were considered respectable, in demand to capture with their greatest efforts what microlenses at the time were not capable of. At the time, I couldn't remember the name Haeckel, or what exactly he called the art form in which he and his contemporaries specialized in, so I set about calling them naturalistic artists. Scientific art? Biological art? Life art? Nature art?  

Instead, what I found was something infinitely more spectacular. Bio-Art, as it was first coined by Eduardo Kac, has managed to stay under the radar for the better part of the last decade, made up of entirely organic, often living materials and when it was still mostly something biologists did for fun. Some of the more controversial works seem like a cubed effort of avant-garde artist Damien Hirst, he who brought the decomposing shark into museums. Rather than drawing the protest from religious organizations or politicians, like Chris Ofili's multimedia painting of the Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum, partially composed with elephant dung (which raised the ire of both communities, and could to some degree be considered a piece of organic art), bio-art has often raised the concerns of PETA, arguing against the manipulation of animals used to create such work.

However, the majority of work, particularly Kac's, which can only be viewed in a gallery, through the lens of a microscope, requires the manipulation of proteins, connective tissues, and cells, rather than living organisms, which are then stained with dyes to create the neon hues seen below. The result is art that we strain our eyes to see, art that touches the olfactory senses before it is even observed, and in many cases, art that continues to move and grow, as biological physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob has discovered. 

Ben-Jacob, like Kac uses the petri-dish as his canvas, although his artwork experiments with strains of potting soil bacteria which he and his research team have recently uncovered. To create his artworks, the petri dishes with their samples are manipulated with a mixture of dyes that swirl together in a psychedelic fashion as new strains are born and die, and also with heat, that affects the bacterial growth in various ways. Sometimes he even incorporates eyedrops of antibiotics, to see what effect it has on the rhythm of bacterial growth, which swirl gradually throughout the dish, breaking off into their own feathery branches, sometimes like a delicate design over a frozen pond.

In his work, he embodies not only a deep sense of aesthetic, a stirring of the subconscious as we watch these single-celled beings become elaborate patterns of fractals, but drama as well, narratives that unlike whatever one might think is the real story behind the smiling Mona Lisa, have yet to conclude. Each miniscule effect Ben-Jacob applies to his subject unravels a great story, a perpetual struggle of his players for their own existence, constantly elaborating their rhythms as the challenges increase. The struggle to survive becomes a harmonious story, each organism playing a role in its life and death, and each side sharing the hope of triumph, the ultimate defeat over the other and the utopia that lies just outside of its reach, once whatever great trial life sets before it has been overcome.

Other Stories by James Sullivan
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