Where Art and Medicine Meet

If “gut-wrenching” were a factor in critical success, the Mori Art Museum (MAM) exhibition “Medicine and Art: Imagining a Future for Life and Love,” would get two thumbs up. At the entrance a sign warns: “This exhibition contains graphic anatomical drawings and figures that some visitors may find distressing. Please consider this before deciding whether you would like to enter.” For most of us, used to digesting violent and provocative imagery splashed across television, movie, and Internet screens, a mere art show would be no problem. But this sprawling display is unique. The Mori has raised the bar for radical exhibitions with this tour de force, rich with profound questions, insight, and yes, even beauty. Visitors are reacting with a mix of revulsion, curiosity, and excitement.

Of the 180 works on view, 150 are from the U.K.-based Wellcome Collection, amassed by the eccentric American-British medicinal pill entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Henry Wellcome (1853–1936). The exhibition is a synchronistic match between director Fumio Nanjos longtime interest in art and medicine and the Wellcome Collection’s interest in showing abroad.

The other 30 works are by contemporary artists known for their interest in the human body, such as Damian Hirst, Alvin Zafra, Jan Fabre, Gilles Barbier, and Marc Quinn. Patricia Piccinini is showing her potent works questioning genetic engineering along with bio-artists Stelarc, Eduardo Kac, and the husband-and-wife team Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. Also on view are works by Japan’s rising art stars Fuyuko Matsui (who works in Nihonga or Japanese-style painting), Tetsuya Noguchi (sculpture), and Miwa Yanagi (photography/multimedia).

Among the show’s highlights are three anatomical drawings Leonardo da Vinci made from dissections in 1489 and 1508 — two of human skulls, one of an ox brain. Loaned from the Royal Collection of the British Royal Family, the drawings are on display in Japan for the first time. “Leonardo basically saw art as the remaking of nature, not the representation of nature,” said Martin Kemp, the world’s leading authority on the Renaissance artist’s work, who drew an elegant and profound portrait of the great polymath during a MAM seminar. “[Leonardo] would say, ‘To portray a person I need to know how their hair works, how the skin works, what the muscle is. I need to understand the optics of shadow.’ For him, art was visual knowledge.” In his quest to learn about the “micro-cosmos of the human body” and the “macro-cosmos of the whole universe,” Leonardo performed more than 30 dissections.

The art of anatomical dissections reaches deep in the MAM show. And despite their macabre depictions, these paintings, etchings, and drawings from the 16th to 18th centuries marvel with incredible detail and painterly beauty. One of the most startling examples is the painting Dissection of a Pregnant Female Figure, Lateral View 1764–1765, by Jacques-Fabian Gautier d’Agoty. Its pretty, brightly smiling model, shown in profile, reveals a cut-open abdomen large with child. But compare this with Normal Sagittal Slice of Human Body from Head to Base of the Spine, (2006–07), by Gunther von Hagens, the scientist/artist behind the controversial traveling blockbuster “Bodyworlds,” and the painterly past seems easier to digest. Von Hagens’s work preserves a one-centimeter slice of the human body using his trademark process of replacing fat and water with plastics. The wonders of modern technology help us to live longer, but they also remove us from the natural and accepted closeness of death felt in past times.

The gentle dignity of death is brought to life in Walter Schelss paired black-and-white photographic portraits of adults and one baby, close to and just after death. The series of large, strong images, titled “Life Before Death,” (2003–05), brings us hauntingly close to that fleeting, mysterious moment of life’s passing.

Fuyuko Matsuis Virgin Specimen (2009), which she created especially for the show, celebrates life. Like all of Matsui’s captivating Nihonga-style paintings, it blends beauty with the macabre, showing the development of the fetus as it passes through 100 million years of human evolution — from fish to amphibian to reptile and finally to human. The human fetus at a very early stage has what appears to be a cleft lip as the face is forming. Matsui also “deformed” her lovely pubescent virgin with a large cleft lip representing this stage and a “scar” representing the girl’s genitalia. With this phantasmal vision, Matsui delves deep into human evolution and the dark recesses of the mind. “I am interested in the human body because I want to show psychological anatomy,” she explains. “Conducting anatomy from the emotional or behavioral perspective is a way to come closer to the truth of humanity.”

So what is the truth of humanity — and life? The exhibition skillfully presents discoveries in DNA and genetics as possible answers. Among historical illustrations of chromosomes, genetic charts, a portrait of Darwin, and the telegram announcing Francis Cricks and James Watsons Nobel Prize for their DNA discovery, is Crick’s original Pencil Drawing of the DNA Double Helix (1953).

Half a century after Crick and Watson’s discovery, some of the most visually charged and important current work in the field is being done by bio-artists exploring the possibilities and ethics of genetic engineering. We now have the incredible power to create life forms, but how do we use it? Are bio-artists the watchdogs of scientists or are they wannabe Dr. Frankensteins without a lab coat?

The show delves into these questions and more with groundbreaking works by Eduardo Kac and Stelarc. Since the 1970s, Stelarc has been using his own body to explore the realms of performance art, body art, and “transhumanism,” (a movement supporting human transformation through emerging technologies). At the exhibition’s press conference he captivated the squeamish audience with his Ear on Arm (2009), an outer ear that is actually implanted under the skin of his forearm, a “living work” that tests the possibilities for prostheses. Photographs of his arm-with-ear appear in the show, as does a video of his Extended Arm (2000), a venture into cyborg technology.

“Art can offer future predictions of life science that will transcend into our daily lives,” said Yoshihide Hayashizaki. An award-winning molecular genetics researcher and director at the RIKEN Omics Science Center in nearby Yokonama, Hayashizaki spoke at a MAM seminar on the exhibition. “Art has the power to shock, and people start to pay attention, so it is a good way to spread information. Stelarc’s Ear on Arm is a good example of this,” he told ARTINFO. “But for many people, it is hard to understand what artists like Stelarc are trying to say exactly.”

Even while bio-artworks have been shocking audiences, bio-artists have been slowly gaining respect and acceptance in the scientific community. Among those helping pave the way are Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of the Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A). On view at MAM is their “semi-living” work Victimless Leather — A Prototype of Stitch-less Jacket Grown in a Technoscientific ‘Body’ (2004), a tissue-culture work placed within a life-sustaining portable mini-lab. Born from human and mouse cells cultured in a flask using biodegradable polymers, it is now growing into the shape of a tiny, flesh-colored kimono. Like their other semi-living works using tissue engineering and stem-cell technologies, this work touches on ethical issues. Here, the “leather” is literally grown, and there is no animal victim.

For many, it’s an inspiring example of art merging with victimless biotechnology, but the work courted controversy when it was shown at the “Design and the Elastic Mind” show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008. Biotechnology, of course, is ripe with controversial issues, including access to genetic information, labeling of genetically modified foods, and human and animal cloning.

Catts explains his views on the issues: “As a culture and society we don’t even come to terms with the way we treat non-modified life, or life — everything from the way we treat the environment to the way we share the world with other living beings and the way we choose to exploit other living beings. The idea that we are going to engineer life to such an extent, we really need to come to terms with this. Or be able to engage with issues concerning life in a way which is more nuanced, informed, and complex. That’s were art can fill the gap.

In 1999, Catts and Zurr were the first artists-in-residence at Harvard Medical School, where they worked for one year under the guidance of Joseph Vacanti, a surgeon and acclaimed pioneer in tissue engineering. Since 2000, thanks to a grant from the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, they have been running the cutting-edge SymbioticA “artistic laboratory” (S stands for science and A for art), a nonprofit organization based within the school of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia. Called the “unofficial mother lode of the bio-art movement,” the facilities include state-of-the-art tissue and neuroscience labs, a surgical training facility, and a sleep lab.

Japan’s Axis magazine recently called Catts the “new da Vinci,” a label he calls “disturbing.” Catts’s vocabulary and creative processes are much like a scientist’s, but in a talk with ARTINFO, he explained that he is foremost an artist — originally a product designer — with no official scientific training. “I would like to see how art helps culture come to terms with what science produces,” he said. “Our culture is not ready for our technological evolution. We need artists to stop and think about technological advances.” Catts feels that artists serve a crucial role in science. “Art is becoming one of the last privileged professions that... has a license to fail and to open the issues rather than bring closure to them,” he explains. “This voice is extremely important in science at the moment.”

Other important voices include artist Marc Quinn, whose touching work on human deformity and disability is redefining our vision of beauty. His marble sculpture Kiss (2001) shows a young man and woman with deformed and missing limbs in a loving embrace. Quinn has collaborated on several art projects with the eminent biologist Sir John Sulston, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Sulston spoke with ARTINFO about art, beauty, and the acceptance of disability. “Marc is showing us that disability should be an accepted thing and that we need to do something about it that is appropriate for our society,” he explained. “Art and science are bound up together because the most important part of science is its contribution to human culture.” In a quote from Keats, Sulston added, “Beauty is truth. Truth beauty. That is all we know on earth and all we need to know.”

But what if we didn’t have to accept disability, because it was curable? Alternatives and cures for disability are now being explored in brain science, one of the newest and most exciting frontiers in the life sciences. On view at MAM is an astounding wheelchair, designed to help the physically impaired, that can be controlled by brainwaves. Called the Brain-wave-driven Wheelchair (2009) it was developed by the Japanese team RIKEN BSI-Toyota. Brain science — recently represented for the masses by the paraplegic, brain-powered protagonist in the mega-hit movie Avatar — is opening a whole new avenue of thinking about the limits of the human body, medicine, and art.

“What the artist does and what the scientist does are rather different,” said Martin Kemp. “But I’m very interested in that initial thing in your gut when you say, ‘Wow, look at that!’ It’s that kind of human intuition that there’s something wonderfully interesting going on. The starting point of art, medicine, and science is often that sheer excitement.”