Visceral science show aims for gut reaction


MOSTLY ART imitates life, but from today you have a chance to see how art literally becomes life. A new exhibition opens at the Science Gallery in Trinity College, Dublin where the art works are created from living tissue.

Visceral: The Living Art Experiment is all about getting a visceral response from the visitor, that gut-tightening reaction when what confronts you is somehow a bit off.

Most of the 15 displays on show to the public from noon today manage to evoke this response, given the high “yuck” factor inherent in many of them.

There is the film presentation that relies on fish corneas and living, swimming human sperm to give you a different kind of visual movie experience. Then there are the “semi-living worry dolls”, dolls meant to comfort a frightened child but which manage to frighten the adults given they are covered in living cells.

The exhibition was brought to Dublin by SymbioticA, the centre of excellence in biological arts at the University of Western Australia. Its lab encourages artists to come into a fully functional biological lab and find interesting ways to incorporate what they see into their works of art.

“We get the artists into our lab and train them into the processes of interest to them,” said Oron Catts, director of SymbioticA and curator of the Visceral show.

“All of these works in the show have been developed in my lab,” he said yesterday. “Our interest is in life, not only art or science.” He stressed that it was not a “science discovery show, it is an art show”.

Visceral features a lab where strange things are happening. “This lab is not just for show, it is a real laboratory,” Mr Catts said. “We are using a technique known as tissue engineering, the idea behind growing organs and body parts for transplantation.”

These techniques were used in the Cryobook Archives display which features four small books sporting “leather” covers made from a combination of human and pig skin. “This is a new way to look at archiving,” says artist Tagny Duff. Indeed.

The skin cells, like all other human material, were donated with full consent and then grown in the Australian lab.

The Dublin exhibition will see the latest fighting game where white blood cells extracted from two donors are pitted against one another in a battle to the death.

Another unusual display uses signals from a dish of brain cells growing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US which are used to control mechanical drawing machines installed at the gallery.

The Vision Splendid shows you a small figure floating in a nutrient bath and seeded with human cells, all to help you consider the meaning of immortality. Cell lines create a form of immortality and can live beyond the life of the doner, Mr Catts pointed out.

You have to feel sorry for a cricket that contributed to a display ominously called Host. It was hardwired to the output from a recorded talk by a scientist discussing insect sex and the bug’s reaction to it was recorded. There are also 200 or so live crickets suspended in small containers to make an engaging visual display.

Strange things will be going on during the event including efforts to extract ammonia from waste breast milk for use as a plant fertiliser. And another artist has “hacked” into the body’s own DNA coding system to produce pictures. He uses the technology behind genetic fingerprinting to deliver images of a skull and crossbones and the copyright symbol.

The show ends on February 25th but on the previous day the gallery has planned a “funeral” for the cells growing on the worry dolls. The ethics associated with doing in all the cells growing in the various projects will also be explored. “At the end of the show we are going to have a public discussion on what to do with this life,” Mr Catts said.

Visceral is open Tuesday-Friday from noon until 8pm and on weekends from noon until 6pm. Admission is free with a suggested donation of €5. The gallery suggests an age limit of 15 years.