Truth, Beauty And The Double Helix

It's pitch black and framed in gold, but it's undoubtedly a mirror. When you stand in front of it, you expect to see what you'd see in any mirror: an image that conforms more or less to what you think you are. In recent years, though, our ideas about what we are have changed dramatically, in no small part because of our awareness of DNA. The average museum goer, for instance, probably knows that humans and chimpanzees differ by only a handful of genes. It still comes as a surprise to realize that the creature staring back at you has your face superimposed on a chimpanzee's body. But the shock is mild. After a momentary giddiness, you see the joke: the chimp is sitting, chin in hand, in the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker."

Artist Justen Ladda's chimp mirror is part of "How Human: Life in the Post-Genome Era," an exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York. It is one of several similar exhibits opening in the next few weeks in New York and London that celebrate the 50th anniversary, on Feb. 28, of the discovery of the DNA double helix. Artists aren't often called upon to commemorate a scientific event, but this was something extraordinary. When James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins discovered that DNA is shaped like a twisted ladder (the double helix), they took the first big step toward deciphering the blueprint for life's mechanism. Since then DNA has become the core of a technology that has profoundly changed how we think about ourselves, our culture and our power over nature. And the double helix has become a cultural icon.

A 2000 show of DNA-related art was largely polemical--paintings condemning genetically modified foods--and about as subtle as a baseball bat. The art in these current exhibits shows how ambivalent, but also nuanced, our attitudes toward genetics have become. The current work, which involves dozens of artists from Japan, China, Brazil, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and Canada, as well as the United States, reflects a greater appreciation of the advantages of the DNA revolution--DNA testing, for instance, which has exonerated innocent people on death row. Almost all the work is understated, yet startling, in its social and moral content. Much of it will provide a sobering counterpoint to the proclamations of benefits sure to accompany the anniversary festivals. Some of the work displays simply the beauty of form and color.

DNA is, in a sense, a modernist molecule. Relying on just two pairs of chemical letters to encode and convey all of an organism's hereditary information, it exquisitely matches form to function. The information is encrypted by the sequence of the base pairs, which form the rungs of the twisted ladder. When a cell divides, the double helix's strands separate from each other, each taking one base in each pair; the strands then form two new double helixes with the same sequence of letter pairs and thus the same hereditary information.

A number of the current works comment on this beauty through familiar images. Swiss artist Hans Danuser, for instance, uses a silver-gelatin print to capture a human embryo, immensely magnified, in deep freeze. It is tiny yet vital amid swirling clouds reminiscent of a Tiepolo sky. A photograph by Japanese artist Manaba Yamanaka compels us to consider the grace in a 99-year-old nude dancer, who is as beautiful in her worn skin at the end of life as Danuser's embryo is at the beginning.

Would we admire artists as much if their talent could be extracted, packaged and sold? Photographer Larry Miller riffs on the increasing commodification of the double helix, in the form of patents on natural genes, in "Genomic License No. 8." He portrays 11 artists, each with a vial of his own blood or other cells, and offers to license, for a price and one-time-only use, the genes that undergird his creativity.

Fear of genetic manipulation of food to satisfy the marketplace is another common subject. With dry wit, Julie Moos takes on transgenic crops with a couple out of Grant Wood's "American Gothic,"reinvented as "Monsanto (Ken and Anita)." This contented pair stand ramrod straight against a backdrop of genetically altered corn.

Many people question just how far we want to go in buying and selling DNA. The New York Academy of Sciences focuses squarely on this question with more than a dozen works in "From Code to Commodity." Artist Ellen Levy has arranged four tall Plexiglas panels housing a relentless cascade of patent fragments, some for roses, others for biomedical innovations, and another for "Annular Shielding for Master-Slave Manipulation."

The wonderful individuality of human identity pervades these exhibitions. Chinese artist Li Tianyuan, in a triptych called "Space Station," shows the artist photographed by a distant satellite, on a Beijing street and under an electron microscope. The latter reveals the striations of his fingernails, which, like his DNA, are unique to him. The sorrowing task of identifying human remains from September 11 fills several heart-wrenching photographs by Richard Press, a forensic photographer formerly with New York City's medical examiner. Spanish artist Joan Fontcuberta displays a series of prints that render, as delicately as a Japanese flower painting, opalescent dabs of red blood with fingerprints.

The notion that all life is interconnected--almost all organisms, from roundworms to humans, are products of DNA--seems to have transfixed many artists. New York artist Suzanne Anker uses a 3-D computer program to create a dazzling field of white fetuses curled among pyrite. In chromogenic prints, Catherine Chalmers offers striking portraits of individual mice, members of our mammal class, which have been genetically modified for research into human diseases and disorders. "Family Tree, 2001," by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan (Gallery of the City University of New York Graduate Center), is a series of self-portraits of the artist, whose face is progressively obscured by the names of his ancestors painted on it in Chinese characters. At the end, his own identity is obliterated by the relatives who preceded him.

The more than 50 artists represented in these exhibitions have found many voices to confront the genomic future racing toward them. It is too soon to know which pieces will speak enduringly to our hopes and fears. It is significant, though, that artists are rediscovering what Watson, Crick and Wilkins realized 50 years ago: that DNA is powerful, mysterious and terrifying, but also an object of great beauty.