The mouse, along with his larger cousin the rat, comprises upward of ninety-five percent of the animals used in biomedical research. Since 1909, when the first inbred strain in a mouse was established, the tiny rodent—eighty-eight million of them a year worldwide—has been manipulated to both help our understanding of and ostensibly find the treatment for various diseases. We’ve given the mouse a better memory, we’ve given him super strength, and we’ve given him the ability to see the color red; we’ve made him fat and we’ve made him autistic. We’ve given him diabetes and epilepsy and a stroke.
Back in 1988 one mouse, a model for oncology research, was inserted with human genes to increase his susceptibility to cancer. Oncomouse, he was called, was the first genetically engineered animal in the world to receive a patent: U.S. Patent No. 4,736,866.
And why, you may ask, am I reading about all of this here in this blog?
Here’s why. Considering the way in which images of one cheerless engineered mouse after another spread through the internet like a virus, it was only a matter of time that in the lab mouse, artists would find inspiration.
In 2000 Bryan Crockett, for one, turned from his resin-dipped balloon sculptures—that simulated human ‘innards’ and earned him a place in the Whitney [Museum of American Art] Biennial three years earlier—to sculpting and casting mice. The first of these, Ecce Homo, made from a faux-marble composite, in a classical vein, was his human-size interpretation of the oncomouse. He said at the time, “This sculpture is intended to be a monument to the test object of modern science, human kind’s symbolic and literal stand-in personified.” Two years later he came back hauling in more rodents for a show, titled “Cultured.” This time he had made seven meticulously detailed sculptures of hairless baby lab mice and named each of them for the seven deadly sins—each represented the outcome of genetic engineering. Lust was a mouse ‘altered to have extremely sensitive skin’ and Envy had human ears, while Gluttony was an immensely fat mouse who had been given a gene for obesity.
No matter your position on animal testing, the mouse, I hope you agree, is ‘the unsung hero of scientific progress.’
Sources: Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin, The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age, 2003; James G. Fox, The Mouse in Biomedical Research: History, Wild Mice, and Genetics, 2007; Daniel Engber, “Lab mice: Are they limiting our understanding of human disease?,” Slate, November 16, 2011; Ken Johnson, “Art in Review: Bryan Crockett,” New York Times, March 15, 2000; Brooke Kamin Rapaport, “Transmogrifications: A Conversation with Bryan Crockett,” Sculpture Magazine, April 2006; Rodent Respect.com.
(Images: Ecce Homo, 30 x 40 x 70 in.; Gluttony, 12-1/2 x 14 in., reproduced for non-commercial use only.)