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Current Magazine, Septempber 2002

Off The Wall

Splicing Art and Science

by Kyle Norris

Fall is like a stepping-stone between seasons. Instead of total devotion to climate, it serves as a shift between the extremities of hot and cold. Nature's evolution of leaf, light and wind shows us the path; the little leaf bursting into vibrant new color becomes a teacher exemplifying change, death and renewal with its papery, transient life. Life is change, and fall not only tells us this but shows us in thousands of tiny, glorious ways. During September, there are two exhibits which strongly incorporate this natural world in strikingly different ways.

"Radioactive Biohazard: Reinterpreting Biotechnology as Art," an installation by artist and geneticist Dr. Hunter O'Reilly, shows at the U-M Warren Robbins Gallery, September 3-26. The exhibit interprets science as art, and O'Reilly, who teaches art and biology at University of Madison-Parkside, is quick to point out the similarities between the two. "Both have aspects of creativity and discovery in them," she says. "They're actually very compatible in what they have to offer each other. For example, when you're on the edge of science you have to be creative to make new discoveries. And great art requires some structure."

One of O'Reilly's pieces, entitled "Let My Family Live! Portrait of Randolfe Wicker, the First Human Cloning Activist," features photographs of Wicker at different stages of his life, superimposed with images from the microscopic world that represent him and his clone descendants. Its text reads, "A human clone would have the same DNA as another, but would be an individual with a unique personality and soul."

In the series "The Art of Death: Viruses Are Beautiful," she has enlarged digitally arranged fluorescent micrographs of cells, viruses and bacteria, and highlighted them with patterns in neon. The result is a glowing, brightly colored chorus of "intellectually horrifying yet visually stunning" images that look more like futuristic candy clumps than micro-organisms. O'Reilly gets a kick from the difference in reaction viewers have before and after they know what they're looking at. She says people initially stand close to examine the images, but once they learn what the images are, they take several steps back.

O'Reilly's intention for the exhibit is to help educate people about biotechnology. "Too many people have irrational fears of biotechnology," she says. "Human cloning, stem cell research and genetic profiling will soon be as common as X-rays, MRIs and chemotherapy, which were all initially demonized."

The Ypsilanti District Library takes a simpler approach to nature, inviting the essence of prairies into its buildings September 4-October 16 with a traveling exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. "Listening to the Prairie: Farming in Nature's Image" delves into the life, landscape and natural world of the North American prairie--one of the most productive agricultural regions on earth--through a series of photographs and murals. The exhibit also features interactive components like a shopping cart full of household goods with a touch screen that describes each product's association to the prairie.

Both exhibits share their intention of "education about nature through art," but their examples of nature contrast highly. "Listening to the Prairie" presents a particular landscape and its various functions. "Radioactive Biohazard" is an artistic exploration of a particular branch of science. One seems more laid-back, while the other hungers to shake up controversy. Each exhibit also has high-tech elements. "Prairie" features fast paced touch screens appropriate for the American attention span and uses technology to keep up the pace of its didactic intention. "Biohazard" is not only high tech in concept, but the techniques O'Reilly uses to make her art rely heavily on the computer. And while both exhibits blend creativity with technology to explore nature, it is ultimately up to the viewer to decide which exhibit is a better hybrid of art and science.

Very Cool (But Creepy) Pic-O-The-Month

U-M's Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry is one of the few establishments in the world dedicated to preserving the history of the dental profession. They boast over 6,000 items representing changes in dental technology from the late 1700s to the 1960s. The cool but creepy exhibits are scattered throughout the Kellogg Building's first and ground floor lobbies. The antique dental contraptions, machinery and tools elicit the feel of breaking into a decrepit turn-of-the-century mental institution at night and walking through its remains with a flashlight. Especially eerie are a series of tooth extraction keys, circa 1700-1880. The ancient, heavy and darkened-with-time-and-intent contraptions probably have a few twisted tales behind them that I don't want to know about.

Kyle Norris writes about art, music and food for a collage of local publications. She can often be found riding her cherry-red bicycle through the streets of The Old West Side. E-mail her at galleries@sgipub.com.

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