Over the past two years, we’ve all had to teach ourselves a little biology. We’ve learned how airborne germs spread, what mRNA is, and that viruses mutate. Simultaneously, many of us have spent months on end distancing ourselves from our fellow humans, communing instead with other species, whether by gardening or adopting pets. Given this abundant interaction among species, a new wave of bio art is blooming.
Bio art is that work made with nonhuman living things, either as materials or as collaborators. In these pages, you’ll find essays on art made with plants, microbes, mushrooms, and even octopuses. Provocative uses of synthetic biology distinguished the early days of bio art: most famously, Eduardo Kac’s glowing green rabbit named Alba was genetically engineered in 2000 with a fluorescent protein taken from jellyfish. But as Claire Pentecost details in her contribution to this issue, “Symbiotic Art,” this surge of new bio art—which tends to position nonhuman beings as sources of wisdom or inspiration rather than playthings—began even before the pandemic. Climate change has brought with it a growing awareness of all the other species with which we are intricately bound in that complex web of relations known as the ecosystem.
For those less eco-oriented artists, learning about other species may lead to reflection on the meaning of life itself. Several artists in this issue turned to a particular species for insight on another way of being. Xiaojing Yan chose reishi mushrooms, while Tuomas A. Laitinen opted for octopuses, and Precious Okoyomon investigated a vine known as kudzu. You’ll find plenty of laboratory workshops here and bacteria usefully enlisted, but you’ll also notice that bio art has crept into less expected kinds of artistic practice. In an essay on postminimalist Los Angeles sculptor Liz Larner, for instance, Andrew Russeth traces her work’s dynamism back to her very first installation in 1987, which teemed with bacterial cultures; he also discusses lesser-known contemporaneous biotic interventions by the likes of Dieter Roth and Gordon Matta-Clark.
Bio art is fraught with ethical questions. How can you “collaborate” with a species you can’t talk to? What does it mean to attribute human meanings and metaphors to other organisms? While some artists and writers take firm positions and offer bold methodologies, for others, it’s this unresolvable tension that makes the genre so compelling.
—Emily Watlington, Associate Editor at Art in America, is the Coordinating Editor for the Bio Art issue.
Eric-Paul Riege by Ellie Duke
In fiber works and performances, New Mexico–based artist Eric-Paul Riege interweaves the traditional and contemporary strands of his Diné/Navajo identity.
The curator of fashion arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, theo tyson, shares five current interests.
New Monuments by Mabel O. Wilson with Sara Zewde
A Columbia University historian discusses current approaches to memorializing American slavery with a Harvard University landscape architect
by Chen & Lampert
Artist-curators Howie Chen and Andrew Lampert offer tongue-in-cheek takes on art world dilemmas.
Playing Dice with the Universe by Alexander Provan
A former sign-painter, artist Tauba Auerbach highlights potentially meaningful patterns in every substance and object, regardless of function or size.
Chelsea Haines on Charles Dellheim’s Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern and James McAuley’s House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France.
by Claire Pentecost
Art made with living materials helps redefine humanness.
by Andrew Russeth
Liz Larner’s early experiments with microbes shaped
by Josie Thaddeus-Johns
Artists are finding beneficial new roles for once-reviled microorganisms.
by Kavior Moon
Shifting views on plant life reflect our troubled socioeconomic dynamics.
Conrad Ventur interviewed by Emily Watlington
Conrad Ventur sees plants as conduits for cooperation and memory. As a gift, a print accompanies the article.
Maria Thereza Alves samples “Seeds of Change,” her ongoing project about the global spread of botanical species through colonialism, the slave trade, and mass migration.
by Louis Bury
Tuomas A. Laitinen probes the relationship between language and matter, human and nonhuman beings.
by Emily Watlington
Many international artists use fungi to represent interspecies cooperation.
Sophie Haigney on Sofia Crespo
Minh Nguyen on Zheng Bo
Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Alexander R. Bigman
CHAÏM SOUTINE AND WILLEM DE KOONING
Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
“SOFT WATER HARD STONE”
New Museum, New York
Swiss Institute, New York
Morgan Library & Museum, New York
Gagosian, New York
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut
Nina Johnson, Miami
Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, Illinois
Halle für Kunst Steiermark, Graz, Austria