Nour Mobarak, Reproductive Logistics, 2020, Trametes versicolor, apple-wood pellets, kraft paper, watercolor, hair, sperm, acrylic, resin, 651⁄2 × 75 × 12 1⁄2". From “Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere.”

Nour Mobarak, Reproductive Logistics, 2020, Trametes versicolor, apple-wood pellets, kraft paper, watercolor, hair, sperm, acrylic, resin, 651⁄2 × 75 × 12 1⁄2". From “Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere.”

“Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere”

Life arises from difference. That’s what biologist Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) averred when she proposed that endosymbiosis—the nesting of one unlike organism inside another—allowed for the evolution of multicellular entities on earth, and that various symbiotic unions remain integral to the flourishing of existence. Now accepted as scientific fact, Margulis’s assertions suggest that we have been moving mosaics of interspecies communion from the very beginning. This paradigm elicits a reconsideration of the boundaries and possibilities of being “human,” an intellectual project that might serve as an entry point for an ethical one, especially as we consider what a consciously interdependent and reciprocal relationship with the world around us might look like.

Margulis’s portrait can be found alongside those of earthworms and tardigrades in artist/activist Claire Pentecost’s pointedly heavy-handed fictional paper currency made with compost, soil-erg, 2012, which calls upon us to rethink what we value. Pentecost’s contribution is the earliest work featured in the MIT List Visual Art Center’s “Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere.” Curated by Caroline A. Jones, Natalie Bell, and Selby Nimrod with research assistance by Krista Alba, the exhibition presents a diverse cohort of fourteen artists who think about and create with organic matter. The term “bio art” was coined in 1997 by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, who three years later famously debuted Alba, a rabbit able to phosphoresce because her genes had been spliced with those of a jellyfish. “Symbionts” centers on a new strain of bio artists eager to push beyond authorial genetic intervention. For the exhibiting artists, Margulis’s symbiotic framework—braided with the wisdom of feminist New Materialism in its insistence on the social lives of matter and the utilization of Indigenous knowledge and natural science—offers a capacious alternative.

Getting into the muck of their materials, several of the artists enter into open-ended collaborations with organic matter, including networked organisms such as mycelia. Consider Nour Mobarak’s crusty wall relief Reproductive Logistics, 2020. Mobarak embraced a vulnerable if winking partnership with saprophytic mycelia, allowing the fungi to partly consume the personal materials embedded beneath the brown mantle containing the filaments: a watercolor self-portrait and a colorful schematic of former sexual partners that incorporates hair and sperm. Špela Petricˇ’s surprisingly tender two-channel video installation Confronting Vegetal Otherness: Skotopoeisis, 2015, depicts a durational performance in which the artist/biologist stands before a bright light for twenty hours, using her shadow to affect the growth of cress. In contrast to the quick-fix idealism of techno-utopianism, Petricˇ’s painstaking interspecies coaction is predicated upon discomfort and boredom, affective states integral to many kinds of growth.

Other artists playfully subvert the form of the vitrine or the petri dish, poking holes in claims that such objects give us control over or provide a barrier to the outside world. In Jes Fan’s Systems II, 2018, blown-glass sacs droop over a fleshy resin-and-wood armature reminiscent of both medical gas piping and petrified intestines. The deflated globes are clouded or streaked with synthesized biological materials of social significance, such as eumelanin, which is responsible for skin pigmentation, as well as pharmaceutically manufactured female and male sex hormones that, among other things, enable gender transition. Nothing is hermetically sealed; the enmeshment of nature and culture is conveyed with a poetic literalism. Pierre Huyghe often works with aquariums, but for Spider, 2014, the artist directed museum staff to periodically release twenty cellar spiders directly into one of MIT List’s galleries—indeed, the white cube becomes a shared vitrine. The administrative headache posed by Huyghe’s project naturally brings up a dimension of institutional critique, which is taken up by Candice Lin’s Memory (Study #2), 2016. Lion’s mane mushrooms burst from a plastic bag, pushing through a red ceramic container’s coralline tracery. Like Huyghe’s work, the mushrooms take the piss out of the institution, in their case, literally: In order for them to grow, the artist has instructed the museum to feed the fungi a diet of distilled urine sourced from (consenting) employees. The presence of a piss-filled mister implicates the viewer, who may be tempted to spritz the thirsty fungi.

At turns sober and playful, urgent and irreverent, “Symbionts” sheds light on a paradigm shift in bio art as it prods us to acknowledge—intellectually, affectively—the depth of our structural and material entanglement with fellow travelers in the biosphere. What we do with that awareness is, of course, up to us.