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A Fascination with New Organisms

Author: Zhang Pingjie 2012-05-26

In 2000, I was an art editor for the Boston-published humanities magazine Tendency. In one issue (the thirteenth issue), I invited some of the most influential contemporary Chinese artists to talk about their perspectives and practices. The artists included Cai Guoqiang, Xu Bing, Zhang Huan, Chen Danqing, and Wang Keping, among others. This issue also included Li Shan’s personal statement.  Looking back, it now appears that it was a good textual documentation of some of these artists at the turn of the century, as it examined their psychology, their state of mind, what they were interested in, and the environment in which they lived.

What did Li Shan write about in his statement?  The Story of a Fish and a Butterfly: an account of BioArt work that he completed in 1998. The text also elaborated on his perspectives and understanding of BioArt. I intentionally added an editorial note to The Story of a Fish and a Butterfly because his thinking was so different from the rest of the artists, or perhaps it was too avant-garde.

In the year 2000, when  humanity shifted from a century of physics to a century of biology, Chinese contemporary art had already attracted worldwide attention . Xu  Bing  had created a  new  set  of  English  calligraphy;  Zhang  Huan  was  rapidly becoming a rising star; Cai Guoqiang was already flourishing; but what Li Shan referred to as BioArt was for almost the entire art world an uncertain thing. This is because it is not primarily an artistic problem, but rather a problem faced by the entire knowledge structure, and so concepts would need to be re- adjusted. At that time, the only artist that could respond to Li Shan’s work was the Brazilian-American artist Edwardo Kac. By 2000, Kac had cultivated a genetically-altered fluorescent rabbit, but in 1998, Kac was still keen on digital organism experiments.

The Story of a Fish and a Butterfly was Li Shan’s first proposed BioArt implementation on genetic recombination, but because of its technical complexities, it could only be presented as a proposal.
Beginning in 1996, Li Shan completed a series of works that were computer-synthesized BioArt images. They were also proposals for the  making of different synthesized genetic organisms.  In 2006, I organized a solo exhibition in New York for Li Shan titled “Reading. ” The extension of these proposals led to the birth of The Pumpkin Project in 2007.

At the end of 2012, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei hosted a solo show on Li Shan’s work. The BioArt draft placed in front of us now is one of the works from this exhibition. It is composed of 100 genetic fragments. When I studied this draft again, I discovered changes to Li Shan’s activities in BioArt:
the first was the realization of a physical entity, and then he moved on to creating computer-synthesized images. If these two first attempts represented Li Shan’s interests in a genetic recombination between two different species, then the draft that is in front of us is Li Shan’s imaginary draft of an artificial genome .  These  drafts  and  proposals  will  be  completed  in laboratories by both scientists and artists. Since the success of the American scientist Craig Venter in 2008, when he announced the successful birth of an artificial life and the designing of life in the near future entered the timeline, Li Shan began to focus on the creation of new organisms. In comparison with the synthesis of genes and transgenes, Li Shan seemed to be more fascinated
by the different styles of new species.

With changes in climate and the environment, both known and unknown species are disappearing in the world every day. Nature’s elimination of species is irreversible, and the damages caused by us have also greatly accelerated the endangerment of certain species. Artificial species are certainly an issue that we
will have to come to terms with in our time.

For scientists, this is functional design; for artists, this is all-new visual design. But regardless, God is no longer the only creator. When an artificial species is created with the participation of artists, or inside the laboratory of Venter or other scientists, the 21st century will have a new biological organism, and it will represent a Second Nature. This Second Nature may still be far from us today, because it involves the consideration of many legal, ethical, genetic, ecological, and other related issues. But Li Shan has already started making his blueprints: when BioArt emerged in the late 20th century, no one paid attention to it, but today it is already categorized as an entry on Wikipedia. So what will happen twenty or thirty years from now? Will it then be possible to revive the biological prototypes drawn by Li Shan?

May, 2012

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