UPDATED: March 16, 2023 at 1:32 p.m.
Art comes to life in Jenna Sutela’s artwork “Gut Flora (Cerebrobacillus).” Made of clay mixed with mammalian feces and glazed with breast milk, the relief is intended to explore the human microbiome. It is displayed in a triptych, alongside “Gut Flora (Lactogalaxius)” and “Gut Flora (Glossococcus).” Sutela wonders whether the interactions between microbe-rich breast milk and inert, fired clay could reanimate the biotic legacy of the feces within the clay.
Sutela’s pieces were displayed in MIT List Visual Art Center’s “Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere” exhibition, which ran from Oct. 21, 2022 to Feb. 26, 2023 in Kendall Square.
“The basic polemic of the exhibition is to remind us that we cohabitate with a lot of other species,” exhibit curator Natalie A. Bell says. “We need to understand that symbiosis, or ‘with-living,’ on a lot of different levels in order to be better partners in caring for the planet.”
Bell says that, in developing the exhibit, she and her co-curators Caroline A. Jones ’77 and Selby P. Nimrod searched for artists who were, “approaching the biosphere with a little bit more humility, and a more passive approach of taking a step back and kind of letting the living things do their thing.”
Much of the exhibition’s vision involved decentering the anthropocene and emphasizing the stories of plants and other forms of non-human biological life. “We humans have really done a lot of damage to our planet by thinking in a very anthropocentric way, and putting ourselves above other species,” Bell says.
Candice Lin’s “Memory (Study #2),” another work in the exhibit, emphasizes the restorative and cyclical nature of lion’s mane mushrooms and their relationship with humans. A plastic bag holds the mushrooms, a shaggy ivory-white fungus. Vital in traditional Chinese medicine, the mushroom has been shown to reduce anxiety, and may help slow memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Lin explores how fungi like lion’s mane, which get nutrients from decaying organisms, can be a force for healing and remembering. Surrounding the bag of lion’s mane is an amaranth red ceramic structure reminiscent of coral. Both the ceramic structure and the fungus appear as if they are growing on and around each other in symbiosis.
The mushroom, however, cannot survive off of the clay. They obtain nutrients from the urine of curators who exhibit the work, contained in a small spray bottle displayed next to the piece. As a result, “Memory (Study #2)” is a collaborative piece between the artist, the fungi, the ceramic, and the museum workers.
Lin’s work represents the cyclical nature of our world: human waste gives the lion’s mane nutrients, which can later return their energy to humans. The recycled nutrients also invoke the idea of a collective consciousness across organisms and time.
Both Sutela’s and Lin’s works are known as BioArt, an emerging field at the intersection of life science and creative expression. The pieces are often metaphors, using biological media to make a statement and redefine the boundaries of art. Much of the BioArt on display at MIT’s Symbionts exhibit criticizes the way humans interact with the natural world.
Other branches of the field instead try to find the art within biology.
According to Joe Davis, a research affiliate at MIT's Department of Biology and staff at the George Church Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, a methodology focused on political or emotional metaphor undermines the art within biology. He believes artists who make BioArt must have a deep understanding of the science and mechanisms behind their work. “You have to describe the whole world — the problem with that is you can’t describe something that you choose to remain clueless about,” Davis says.
On the other hand, Sheryl L. White, the Coordinator of Visual Engagement and Exhibitions at the Arnold Arboretum, notes the benefits of displaying BioArt without extensive scientific detail.
“You get 10 million facts thrown at you, and how do you wade through them? And what do you believe or what don't you believe? But there's this sort of lovely thing that happens when artists actually think about science and how they can connect to it,” she says. “It becomes this way of almost understanding through your eyes what people are trying to tell you through your ears.”
One piece that works in this way at the Symbionts exhibit is a silent video projected onto the wall of a dark room. In the looping 18-hour, 52-minute video, titled “Confronting Vegetal Otherness: Skotopoiesis,” artist Špela Petrič stands still over a bed of germinating cress, projecting the shade created by her body onto the growing greens. “Skotopoiesis” means “shaped by darkness,” and Petrič’s shadow prevents sprouts in the shade from photosynthesizing. These sprouts withered and yellowed, and the resulting video of the process showed how easy it is to break the barrier between the human and plant worlds.
Whether it is finding art in biology or using biology to create art, BioArt provides a contemporary avenue for exploring humans’ relationship with the natural world. BioArt highlights the beauty of biological dynamics that are often obscured in graphs and jargon. At Symbionts, artists leverage the appreciation of the natural world to sound a warning about how humans are harming it.
Correction: March 16, 2023
A previous version of this article inaccurately stated Joe Davis is a researcher and artist at MIT’s Department of Biology and affiliate with the George Church Laboratory at Harvard Medical School. In fact, he is a research affiliate at MIT's Department of Biology and staff at the George Church Laboratory at Harvard Medical School.
Correction: March 16, 2023
A previous version of this article misspelled Candice Lin's first name.
Correction: March 16, 2023
A previous version of this article misspelled Jenna Sutela's last name.
— Magazine writer Ellie S. Klibaner-Schiff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ellieklibschiff.