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'Genpets' by Adam Brandejs
"Genpets," created by Adam Brandejs, are bioengineered buddies that come with a feeding tube. (Montserrat College art gallery)
ART REVIEW

Art from the science lab: It's weird, but to what effect?

Someday you'll be able to buy live, genetically engineered pets off the shelf at Toys "R" Us . They'll come in plastic containers like regular toys, and when you release them from their packaging, they'll awaken from artificially induced states of hibernation and come fully to life.

That, at least, is the fantasy animating a work by sculptor Adam Brandejs included in "It's Alive! A Laboratory of Biotech Art," a thought-provoking but disappointing exhibition at Montserrat College of Art Gallery. Organized by gallery director Leonie Bradbury , the show presents works by six artists from Boston and five from other cities in the United States and Canada that respond to developments in biotechnology.

Brandejs's satiric invention, the Genpet, is an ugly, hairless, supposedly living homunculus resembling a plucked chicken with an oversize head. It comes in a see-through plastic container equipped with a heart monitor, a nutrient feeding tube, and a freshness gauge. A dozen or so packaged, somnolent Genpets hang on a wall in the gallery as if in a store display. The molded rubber creatures don't really look alive when you examine them closely, but the faux-commercial packaging is convincing. You might imagine a new Steven Spielberg sci-fi movie based on the concept. (For that matter, you can imagine Brandejs working for Spielberg as a prop maker .)

In her catalog essay, Bradbury notes that the new "Biotech art" movement "blurs the boundaries between art and science," and she writes further, "The genetic revolution has turned the artist's studio into a laboratory, the artist into a researcher, and living tissue technology into a medium."

Today's best known biotech artist, Steve Kurtz , is not in the show. Kurtz is the Buffalo-based conceptualist who was arrested in 2004 and investigated by the FBI as a possible bioterrorist because bacterial cultures and laboratory equipment were found in his home after his wife died of a heart attack. A member of a performance and protest art collective called Critical Art Ensemble, Kurtz was doing at-home scientific research into the genetic alteration of food products.

If you are looking for "It's Alive!" to tell you about a profound convergence of art and science or news of a serious new contemporary art movement, you'll be frustrated. Only one artist in the show, Hunter O'Reilly , combines art and something approaching real biological science. A trained geneticist as well as an artist, O'Reilly creates luminous, vaguely Modernist- and tribal-style abstract designs by arranging glow-in-the-dark bacteria in sets of petri dishes. In the exhibition there is one piece inside a curtained box; stick your head in and you see dimly glowing patterns in dishes arranged on a horizontal pedestal. O'Reilly also presents pairs of blue-tone photographs of previously produced works; one of each pair shows a piece when fully alive and lit up, and the second shows it fading as the bacteria die. Unfortunately, O'Reilly's work is not very exciting visually, and it also seems pretty rudimentary as science; it's like an advanced high school biology project.

The show's other artists create fairly conventional works whose subject matter happens to relate to biotechnology. The team of Jennifer Hall and Blyth Hazen , for example, assembled a kind of torture machine for vegetables. Under a transparent dome, electronically activated robotic arms repeatedly jab a rotting tomato with acupuncture needles. It's initially impressive as a machine, and the implied sadism is touching (poor tomato!). But it is a letdown to find that nothing scientifically intriguing is happening to the tomato.

Kevin Jones's "Pseudo Tree," another mechanical sculpture, is similarly more symbolic than scientific. As a man blows up a red balloon on a video monitor, a robotic white-fabric umbrella overhead opens up like a plant. This is supposed to represent the carbon dioxide that people and animals exhale and the trees and other plant life that thrive on that gas. An uncontroversial comment on ecological relations, it is hardly cutting edge either as science or as art.

Using a mock-documentary video, a computer display, and large, glossy, faux-corporate photographs, the team of Shawn Bailey and Jennifer Willet produced the fiction of a high-tech company called Bioteknica that markets "designer organisms" -- thimble-size lumps of flesh related to a type of tumor called a teratoma. Exactly what purpose the Bioteknica products would serve and how they relate to what real scientists are doing today remains unclear, but as with Brandejs's Genpets, Bailey and Willet's work could be the basis for a sci-fi movie thriller.

Yet another movie could be based on the small, intricate fictive objects that Brian Burkhardt fabricates -- robotic (but nonfunctioning) butterflies engineered for surveillance and espionage. Large color photographs resembling film stills by Burkhardt's collaborator Tanit Sakakini show a curiously tense family scene with butterfly spies -- camouflaged by woodgrain wings -- unobtrusively clustered on the wood framing of a fireplace in the background.

Serving a more decorative function are Brian Knep's digital video projections of flat, cartoonish, cellular forms in continual slow motion. A circular projection on the floor adds a mildly amusing interactive dimension: The forms fade and then reappear when you wave your hand over them.

As for Steve Hollinger's small glass creations -- one resembling an artificial heart has blue ink heated by electric light flowing between chambers through thin tubes -- they are beautifully crafted, but their connection to the biotechnology theme is tangential.

There's no doubt that the subject matter of "It's Alive!" is important. The genetic alteration of plants and animals for all sorts of purposes will continue to evolve, as will technologies of biological warfare and bioterror, and the effects of such developments might not be known until it's too late. But as happens too frequently with science- and technology-themed shows, the art presented by "It's Alive!" only illustrates a topic that you can learn more about by regularly perusing the science section of any major metropolitan newspaper.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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