View of “Dana-Fiona Armour,” 2023. Wall: Vue microscopique numéro 6 (nicotiana benthamiana transgénique), 2022. Pedestal, from left: Pneumatophore #4, 2022; Pneumatophore #2, 2022. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

View of “Dana-Fiona Armour,” 2023. Wall: Vue microscopique numéro 6 (nicotiana benthamiana transgénique), 2022. Pedestal, from left: Pneumatophore #4, 2022; Pneumatophore #2, 2022. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

Dana-Fiona Armour

A pair of long, delicately colored tubes lay in parallel on top of a low plinth in the gallery’s entrance. One end of each elongated form bent itself off the edge of the traditional pedestal, like a creature curious about what was beyond the plinth, but did not connect to anything—not to the ground, not even to its companion. Pneumatophore #2 and #4 (all works 2022), resemble oversize water-snake toys—hollow forms made of latex or rubber and filled with liquid, designed as fidget devices to train motor control and concentration. But Dana-Fiona Armour’s sculptures are made of blown glass tinted rose pink and deep violet with melanin, oxides, and metallic salts. Their title refers to a type of aerial root structure some plants develop to obtain oxygen in waterlogged habitats.

Armour’s recent exhibition “A Tale of Symbiogenesis” extended a research project she has undertaken with the French biopharmaceutical company Cellectis, which specializes in genome-editing technologies. Under the guidance of several biogeneticists, Armour isolated the human MC1R gene, reproduced it synthetically, and then rigged a virus to insert the gene into the DNA of the Nicotiana benthamiana, a tobacco plant commonly used for tests in biotech labs. The MC1R gene, when activated, triggers the production of melanin, the amino acid that allows human skin to tan when exposed to the sun. Armour’s artistic research demonstrated that a human molecular structure could be made to exist in that of a plant.

The video Scan Micro CT Nicotiana Benthamiana – Pre Transgenesis ACT II shows a digital rendering of the vein structure of the tobacco plant’s leaves before its genes were modified. The simulation, rendered in tones of matte grayish pink, traverses the model’s intricate exterior before entering the hollow passage of its spine. With all visual noise digitally eliminated, the video mimics the medical imagery used to develop biological products. Three vividly colored microscopic photographs of the same subject, Vue microscopique numéro 4, 5, and 6 (Microsopic View Number 4, 5, and 6), use the same science-based formal vocabulary. Ubiquitous and opaque, Armour’s representations of the molecular world are indistinguishable from the biotech industry’s corporate imaginary. They do not express any of the ethical complexity involved in forcing a plant to host a bit of humanness. The assumption here is that humans may transgress the genetic integrity of nonhumans for the sake of aesthetics.

To construct three wall-mounted cast-glass pieces, Nervures secondaires 1, 2, and 3 (Secondary Veins 1, 2, and 3), Armour combined crystal, opaline, and colored glass to make bony structures inspired by tobacco-plant leaves she had genetically modified. These works came the closest to visualizing the exhibition’s title and framework, the notion of symbiogenesis—the process by which two organisms merge to form another that is genetically distinct and more complex. Yet these haunting quasi skeletons retain a precious quality, as art objects categorically uninvolved with biological processes such as putrefaction.

In a text about Armour’s work commissioned for her first exhibition at Andréhn-Schiptjenko, in 2021, curator Nicolas Bourriaud asked, “Is art, as a whole, in itself a dead element inserted into the life of human society? This is a profound question, which Armour attempts to answer by emphasizing calcification or crystallization as a tool for producing forms.” Perhaps the cynicism implicit in Bourriaud’s question about the death of art derives from the inert quality in Armour’s work, the formal lifelessness with which she renders symbiogenesis. Rather than address the deadness of art critically, Armour produces a simulacrum that ignores the difference between, on the one hand, invading other beings for the sole purpose of implanting ourselves in them and, on the other, developing resilient hybrid life-forms capable of surviving the man-made catastrophe at hand.