/ 14 August 2023

Art meets science at UJ exhibition

Nathanielstern1 Min Min Min
Installation by Nathaniel Stern at the FADA gallery, University of Johannesburg

The first bio-art exhibition to be held on the African continent will be on display at the University of Johannesburg’s Fada Gallery until 17 August. 

Bio-art is “a creative practice that deals with the hands-on application of the latest advances in biology and life science practices, microscopy, and biotechnology, including technologies such as genetic engineering, tissue culture, and cloning”.

This is according to the co-founders of the Creative Microbiology Research Co-Labat at the university, Leora Farber, director of the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, and Tobias Barnard, director of the Water and Health Research Centre in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

The SYM|BIO|ART exhibition, which took about a year to put together,  includes works by nine artists and scientists — Barnard; Farber; artist and writer Nathaniel Stern; dancer and choreographer Nelisiwe Xaba; research designer Nadine Botha; artist-in-residence Brenton Maart; architectural inventor Xylan de Jager; architect Miliswa Ndziba and para-disciplinary artist Nolan Oswald Dennis.

The team uses interdisciplinary approaches when working with biomaterials and producing new ones.

This exhibition feels as if every time you return to an artwork, it has changed to something totally different. It is such a bizarre experience, but in a satisfying way.

The artists have highlighted the relationship between our bodies and the ecosystem. They remind us how we are one with living and nonliving matter that is inside us and surrounds us. We are reminded through the artworks that we are one with our environment. 

Farber and Barnard say that the concept of bio-art is not new. Alexander Fleming (the penicillin guy) was among the first people to explore bio-art by using bacteria to create drawings in petri dishes. 

“In the 1930s, artists such as Edward Steichen and George Gessert first employed genetics as an art medium to modify organisms. Both artists showed their works in art galleries. Thereafter, bio-materials [bodily fluids like sperm, menstrual blood and urine] were used in several 12th-century Western art genres such as in early feminist body art and performance [as in the work of Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneemann],” they say.

In 1997, contemporary artist Eduardo Kac coined the term bio-art in reference to his artwork, Time Capsule, created with French geneticist Louis-Marie Houdebine. Kac was known for commissioning the controversial creation of a genetically modified rabbit named Alba, who glowed in the dark after being injected with a green fluorescent protein.

Over the years, artists and scholars have explored bio-art, creating a platform for the discipline to evolve as much as it has. 

But Africa has a lot of catching up to do; few artists and designers work with bacteria or with biotechnological processes in general. 

“Given that bio-art practice is unrecognised and unestablished in South Africa, it offers enormous potential as a field of creative and theoretical research in this country,” say Farber and Barnard. 

“Bio-art can also increase awareness of the bacterial world that resides in us and surrounds us, and prompt new ways of interacting with microbial organisms. For instance, instead of seeing bacteria as only harmful and dangerous to our health, we might think about ways of engaging with them that acknowledge the interdependent and symbiotic nature of our relationship with them.”

Other uses of bio-art are biofabrics used in fashion and textile industries, and the use of mycelium in architecture to create eco-friendly, bio-sustainable bricks for the construction industry. 

This discipline is not only enjoyable but has practical potential to catapult solutions to some environmental issues.   

What is interesting about the SYM|BIO|ART exhibition is that since the day it started, some of the material may have taken a new shape, which means you’ll have to see it again. 

The artists show their works in one space but all the pieces merge into each other, telling a story about what the future could look like.

“Bioart offers an innovative approach to converging new methodologies, materialisms, and forms of knowledge,” say Farber and Barnard. “As such, it can be a powerful platform for African artists and scientists — or bio-art practitioners — to express and address concerns that are relevant and particular to the continent, be these socio-political, historical or environmental.”