BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 06 MAY 97
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Issue 34


BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 06 MAY 97

Squirming, wiggling her pink nose and gnawing playfully at the microphone, Dolly remains oblivious to the media frenzy she inspires. The seven month-old lamb is a fuzzy little miracle of genetic engineering: cloned in a Scottish laboratory from the cells of a six year-old ewe's udder and unfertilised eggs, she has ignited a slew of legal and ethical debates. She has also awakened profound anxiety about the application of such technology to human beings ­ thoughts that soon give way to a world inhabited by multiple Dr. Frankensteins harbouring hordes of identical Hitlers in their dingy, dungeon workshops.

Such apprehensions might be further exacerbated by the exhibition 'Live in Boston'. Here, French artists Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin, who founded ART ORIENTÉ objet, or AOo, in 1991, fulfil a bizarre fantasy of exchanging flesh as a gruesome metaphor for intimate connection. The exchange, outlined in a videotaped interview included in the show, was accomplished in a highly sophisticated Massachusetts laboratory. Patches of skin cells from both artists were bred from cultures, then stamped with intricate, vividly coloured images.

The exhibition begins with two large-scale photographs taken by AOo of each other's torsos. Both artists are bare-chested, their skin covered with graphic animal 'tattoos' made from the transfer patterns tattoo artists use as initial designs. Lopped off at the neck, these two photographs not only play off Laval-Jeantet and Mangin's identity as artistic collaborators or male/female doppelgangers, but explore notions of anonymity and morphing. The process renders them almost invisible and emphasises the nature of their colourful 'tattoos', which mix such innocuous or imaginary creatures as butterflies, hummingbirds and unicorns with savage ones: tigers, cobras, black widows ­ all threatening, even deadly.

Brightly painted and simply drawn, these flat, superficial illustrations are all equalised, stripped of their personality like harmless clichés or advertising logos. Applied as transfers rather than being permanently etched onto the skin, the designs are instantly removable, easy to wear and easy to erase; repudiating the animals' inherent force and reversing their position in nature, they embody our rampant cynicism toward animals, whose survival is entirely subject to human caprice.

On another wall, the patches of actual skin bred in the Boston laboratory, and tattooed permanently with those same animal logos, were downright creepy. Flat, square fragments of flesh in jars of preservative, these strange specimens were lined up like precious jams inside a glazed metal cabinet.

Reduced to tiny cut-outs arranged in ordered containers, the presentation hinted at a coldly rational, artificial system that turns animals over to science for experimental research. But what lingers is the weird flavour of human mutation ­ the pieces of skin seem both strangely alive and disembodied ­ Silence of the Lambs meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The show also included their Museum of Natural Horrors (all works 1997), an eerie doll's house with tiny laboratories instead of bedrooms that contained a mini-retrospective of ironic AOo projects concerning the use of animals in research. Toy-sized versions of works were presented, such as Ersatz Maman (a mother-substitute for orphaned monkeys constructed from a camembert box and a potato sack).

The final work in the exhibition was perhaps the most grotesque: a wall pasted over with magazine and newspaper clippings illustrating scientific experiments on mice (such as the rodent sprouting an enormous human ear from its back), along with a dusty, disintegrating mouse carcass pinned inside a glass case.

The various elements that made up 'Live in Boston' operate on many levels ­ like layers of epidermis ­ condemning our indifference to animals while stirring up the anxieties of human mutation and posing questions about the ramifications of producing human skin for research or medical treatment while we remain helpless before the violence of rampant viruses like HIV. Just how far are we from the nightmarish Brave New World, prefigured by the existence of Dolly, in which humans reproduce via an assembly-line of artificial fertilisation?

AOo's 'hybrid' installation ranges from disturbing to deliberately repulsive. But it is also a plea for a total mind-shift, a cry for ethical and spiritual reparation. Beauty, as we all know, is not skin deep.