Legacy of a Mouse

Surely one of the creepiest and most intriguing works of art in which a mouse has played muse to an artist, or rather a pair of artists, was the tiny ‘leather’ jacket that grew out of the embryonic cells that the rodent had lent.

Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, a European-born duo who live and work in Australia, called their mouse-inspired work, “Victimless Leather,” part of their Tissue Culture and Art Project. The biological art piece was essentially a layer of living mouse tissue over a base made of biodegradable polymer, shaped like a coat. The ultimate aim: when the polymer degraded, the coat’s outline and integrity would remain. Sort of like, I imagine, the crafts idea of wrapping yarn with glue and water round and round an inflated balloon, and popping the balloon once the yarn had dried, leaving the balloon’s contours. The artists-scientists—who have been using various tissue technologies as their artistic media since the 1990s and are now considered trailblazers in the genre of ‘bioart’—saw in their two-inch jacket the start of a cultural discussion about the possibility of, for example, wearing ‘leather’ without killing an animal, about “curbing our destructive consumerism.”[1]

The Museum of Modern Art got wind of what Catts and Zurr were up to ‘down under’ in SymbioticA—the Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory at the University of Western Australia—and invited the pair to NYC to display their mouse-jacket in the museum’s 2008 show “Design and the Elastic Mind,” an exploration of “the reciprocal relationship between science and design in the contemporary world….”[2]

The jacket was readied for its American debut, erected inside its glass incubation flask—a ‘bioreactor’ that acts as a ‘surrogate body,’ and hooked up to its feeding tubes of nutrients. But no sooner had the show opened than the jacket began to rebel in the most literal sense; it took on a life of its own and grew out of control, the cells multiplying so fast that the feeding lines started to clog, and one of the sleeves fell off. That, according to MoMA’s senior curator Paola Antonelli. With Catts and Zurr back in Australia, a month into the exhibition, Antonelli had to make a life-and-death decision, whether or not to pull the plug. She later told the Art Newspaper, “I’ve always been pro-choice and all of a sudden I’m here not sleeping at night about killing a coat….”[3] In the end she really had no choice; she killed the coat. The artists weren’t troubled by what Antonelli had done. To the contrary they found ‘euthanasia’ of their jacket provided a perfect ending, a perfect “reminder to people that these works are/were alive and that we have a responsibility towards the living systems that we engage in manipulating.”[4]

The cells of the mouse that Catts and Zurr used came from a single mouse who had once been alive in the 1970s.

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[1] MoMA, “Victimless Leather,” Design and the Elastic Mind.

[3] Helen Stoilas, “MoMA exhibit dies five weeks into show,” The Art Newspaper, May 1, 2008.

[4] John, Schwartz, “Museum Kills Live Exhibit,” The New York Times, May 13, 2008.

Other sources: The Tissue Culture and Art Project; Lakshmi Sandhana, “Jacket Grows From Living Tissue,” Wired, October 12, 2004; Stephanie Kramer, “Interview with Oron Catts: Victimless Leather, Urban Times (on-line), April 13, 2012.

(Image: Victimless Leather by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, first created 2004, 2 x 1.4 inches, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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