Posted on Sun, Aug. 07, 2005

San Jose Mercury News

ALIVE or almost:  Female artists ponder the meaning of life in the age of genetic engineering

Mercury News

When Dr. Frankenstein returned to the lab to build a mate for his monster in the 1935 sequel to the original film, it seemed the big issue was dating etiquette.

Since then, the stakes of such meddling have grown a wee bit higher.

In ``Brides of Frankenstein,'' which has just opened at the San Jose Museum of Art, 15 women have taken up video, robotics, animation and computer games, among other media, to explore the implications of the burgeoning potential of genetic engineering and the ways that galloping computing power are letting us take evolution into our own hands.

Guest curator Marcia Tanner reached across the country and the globe for these artists and returned with a selection that focuses less on the broad, societal implications posed by genetic engineering and more upon the personal, emotional and existential issues it raises.

Their work ranges from the suitably Gothic -- a grainy film of a woman endeavoring to bring a clay form to life -- to the nervously funny -- a pair of robotic, aluminum lower torsos fitted with a girl's tap shoes that throws noisy tantrums when you pass.

Of course, artists always have served as the canaries in the coal mine of society. Duchamp's 1912 ``Nude Descending a Staircase'' can be seen as a fair representation of the impact of industrialization, with its fractionalizing of the self into sequential actions.

Artists' specific interest in genetic engineering has been on the increase since 1996, when the cloning of Dolly the sheep and subsequent breakthroughs -- last week's announcement that South Koreans have cloned a dog, for example -- have started making science fiction real.

In essence, the questions are much the same as when Mary Shelley first posed them with her novel ``Frankenstein'' in 1818: Is there a point at which scientific prowess becomes hubris? And if that happens, is there any real chance that humanity can stuff the genie back into the bottle?

Now that commercial pet cloning services and the like have begun to appear (see www.savingsand, the issues have taken on greater urgency than before.

``Brides'' places a greater premium upon aesthetics than did the more broadly framed and didactic ``Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics,'' which passed through the Berkeley Art Museum in the fall of 2003 and considered such issues as ownership of genetic material, transgender sharing of traits and the rise of technology-worshipping cults.

This is particularly true in the first room of the San Jose show. Elizabeth King's video of a meticulously constructed mannequin, digitally modified to imbue it subtly with life, and Katherine Wetzel's photographs of same, draw their unnerving power precisely from the attention given to the way the mannequin was made.

These works are ideal openers. The unease we feel -- at the sight of a customarily inanimate object given life -- is the very sensation that resonates throughout the show's eclectic offerings.

Andrea Ackerman's projected video ``Rose Breathing: Version 1'' might be described as Georgia O'Keeffe meets ``Blade Runner.'' An enormous rose, its petals digitally modified to resemble flesh and pulsing open and closed as if breathing, manages to be at once sexually alluring and carnivorously menacing, a enormous Freudian party favor.

Cow gut on the wall

In ``Breath 1: Pleasure,'' 2000, Sabrina Raaf gives new meaning to the term ``art from life'' with a series of what appear to be large petri dishes hung on the wall and connected with white wires. The dishes have been covered with veiny cow gut and filled with a thick clear liquid in which blood red ``cells'' of some sort are floating. A computer program alternately illuminates and dims the collection of dishes in what seem to be different breathing patterns, from normal to panting. Yikes.

Tanner, who once served as executive director of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art and is now an independent curator based in Berkeley, may have been onto something when she limited this exhibit to female artists. The implicit question is whether the gender with the power to create life might respond differently than its counterpart to the era of customized life from a petri dish.

Indeed, the show resonates with underlying feminist issues, since men continue to dominate the fields of technological innovation and entertainment. Doubtless that's why Peggy Ahwesh, in ``She Puppet,'' 2001, took a male fantasy -- ``Tomb Raider's'' Lara Croft -- and re-edited footage from the video game to reflect Croft's existential tragedy: She is a woman trapped alone in the world, in a body she never asked for.

At other times, though, ``Brides'' seems like a Disneyland animatronics exhibit run off the tracks and into the wild.

Wind-up dogs, skinned

Tamara Stone's ``Are You Afraid of Dogs?'' 2001, features a shelf of mechanical toy animals, their synthetic fur removed to reveal the skeletal plastic and wires beneath. The animals leap into motion and sound when you activate them, leaving the viewer uncomfortably uncertain whether to view them as life or as technology.

In the grotesquely fleshy category is Patricia Piccinini's ``Siren Moles: Exellocephala parthenopa,'' 2000, which features two highly realistic-looking hairless creatures simply sitting in their vitrine and breathing ever so faintly.

Shows like ``Bride,'' engaging and topical as they are, run the risk of subordinating art to social commentary, which is fine as long as everyone realizes how impermanent that approach can render the art. The smallest unanticipated technological inflection can send the world hurtling in a different direction -- and leave works like these looking like so many riffs on the dangers of monorails. Who in 1986, after all, anticipated the world-altering impact of the Internet?

I have a similar quibble with the show's title, a concession to marketing that threatens at times to subsume the intentions of the individual artists. It also seems to betray some lack of confidence that a South Bay audience would visit if the show wore a less flashy moniker. Imagine the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art feeling the need to call its current retrospective ``The Wizard of Trifles'' instead of ``The Art of Richard Tuttle.''

Still, as a series of thoughtful snapshots of individual emotional reactions to the dilemmas posed by our current technology, ``Brides'' is apt indeed. We are at once gods and potential victims of our own god-like powers, and there's no doubt that we have some serious thinking to do, however the future unfolds.

Looking out from the gallery, it is possible to see Viola Fry's enormous ceramic, a piece of the permanent collection, of a man in a suit standing in the museum lobby. Frankensteinian though it is, it seems positively quaint compared with what's happening in ``Brides.'' It's a Brave New World, and artists have taken notice.

`Brides of Frankenstein'

Works by 15 artists

Where: San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.

Through: Oct. 30

Admission: Free

Information: (408) 294-2787,

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