Suzanne Anker: Doyenne of Bio Art
In the wet lab at the School of Visual Arts students experiment with living materials and translate their findings into art.
As a child growing up in Sheepshead Bay, Suzanne Anker, Chair of the Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan, couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be an artist or a scientist. She collected caterpillars and kept them in a shoebox with milkweed until they hatched; she also spent time drawing and painting. But she saw no way to combine her two passions until the late 1980’s when she began making sculptural and pictorial portrayals of chromosomes.
“As I began to work with these chromosomes they appeared to me to be like alphabets,” she explained in a recent interview. “They were very close to the sign systems that existed in early writing. That just resonated with me; it was as if the body was writing itself.” In Zoosemiotics (see slide show above) she explored this ‘language’ further by adding animal chromosomes into the mix.
Today Anker, now 66, is a doyenne in BioArt, a relatively new and sometimes controversial field where artists often use living forms such as organisms, tissues, bacteria, bodily fluids or DNA to create provocative works, such as Marc Quinn’s portrait of the Nobel Prize winning geneticist, Sir John Edward Sulston, in the National Portrait Gallery in London: It consists of a sample of Sir John’s DNA in agar jelly inside a stainless steel case (see slide show).
Ms. Anker often uses the imagery of scientific discoveries, or that produced by medical tests (see MRI Butterfly in slide show) and also living organisms in her work. She works in a variety of mediums, ranging from digital sculpture and installations to large-scale photography, plants grown by LED lights , and most recently, sea sponges for an exhibition, Nature’s Toolbox: Biodiversity, Art and Innovation, opening May 22 at The Field Museum in Chicago. Her work has been shown in the Smithsonian Institute, the JP Getty Museum, the Mediznhistorisches Museum der Charite in Berlin, the Pera Museum in Istanbul, and the Museum of Modern Art in Japan, among others.
This past January she founded a Nature and Technology Lab at SVA; it’s a wet lab for students to perform hands on experiments with living materials and then translate their findings and observations into works of art in their chosen fields, including the performing arts. The lab has microscopes that can make photos or videos of materials invisible to the naked eye, a herbarium, an aquarium, and collections of skeletons and biological slide specimens.
“The biological sciences are in a golden age,” Ms. Anker says. “Things that are going on in labs are very inspiring. Dangerous, but inspiring. In the art world there has been too much of a gravitational shift towards entertainment and popular culture when there are some really fabulous things being done in science; artists are well poised to enter into that dialogue.”
Ms. Anker is the co-author of The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age and writes for both art and science publications. Her primary interest is the intersection of biology and art. Both in her writings and artistic work she questions the ethics of practices such as genetic modification and gene patenting, “and the whole commodification of our bodies, our body parts, our cells, our tissues”; reproductive technologies such as surrogacy, which exploit poor women as “gestational parents,” and the use of animals for medical purposes, such as mice genetically modified to make them susceptible to cancer, or pigs specially bred to make human insulin.
“The status of an animal that is part medical, part pharmaceutical is very hard to get your mind around,” she says. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it, but there must be ground rules. The museum and the art gallery are in the public arena and therefore are very good places to begin having these discussions because they are not going to happen in a science lab. Scientists are not meant to critique themselves. And advances in technology and science are moving so fast that the legal and ethical systems don’t have time to catch up.”
“But BioArt is at a crossroads,” she adds. “It is not enough to intersect the arts and the biological sciences, you have to make good art. Artists today are repeating projects that have already been done. The question is how can we push the whole thing forward. What are the new ways we can visualize this knowledge? This is another reason I built this lab.”
Ms. Anker’s students are given a thorough grounding in science and take courses at the Museum of Natural History, including demonstrations on how to use high tech microscopes and classes on such subjects as plant tissue engineering and how to make micro eco-systems. Her hope is that working in the lab and employing scientific methods will not only produce good art, but also teach students “to have the perseverance and the precision in addition to the mayhem that is necessary to make good art. Many students try something once or twice and if it doesn’t work they go on to something else.”
“What I hope they will do here is develop stamina and learn to pay attention to detail. In this lab if you don’t do something right it dies. I hope they learn how to see in between things and persevere. After all, it took 400 attempts to clone Dolly. So if it doesn’t work we’ll try it again. Try it a different way. Try to figure out why it didn’t work. That’s good experience for going into the art world.”
Lisa Martineau, a former foreign correspondent for The Guardian, published her first novel, All The Old Familiar Places, last year. Her biography, Politics & Power: A Biography of Barbara Castle (a Financial Times biography of the year) has just been re-issued. She teaches creative writing at The Hudson School.