Thursday, May 8, 2008

Historical Continuity

Le Grimoire d'Hypocrate / The Alchemist
P.F. Basan (1723-1797)
301 x 403 mm
Etching and engraving
Printroom, Universiteit Leiden

I was in the Prentenkabinet in the Libary, when I came across this 18th century French print. To me it represents a sort of historical precedent of BioArt, the alchemist/scientist/artist who in his/her laboratory seeks to transform base matter into something higher. Perhaps the spiritual component of medieval alchemy, where the transformation of base matter into gold simultaneously signified the cleansing of the soul, is also very much present in BioArt (although this is of course a factor significantly determined by the artist' own conception of spirituality).

Nevertheless, as spirituality can be -broadly- considered the individual's reception of and reaction to values of their respective community/communities, Bioart produced by an artist is inherently engaging in a debate that forms very much part of the public sphere, i.e. cloning, genetics, but also more profoundly: what is life and what do we do with it? The production and incorporation of scientific protocols as evident in most of the work we have encountered so far in the course represents however a significant departure from the medieval alchemist's methodology. Whereas before such recipes/protocols would have been closely guarded secrets of controversial (i.e. the Church, and the Inquisition in the 16th century formed significant obstacles in the secularistion of scientific knowledge) the increased literacy and education of our age means that protocols can be read and understood by all.

Questions that interest me are: is the democratisation of such knowledge favourable to artists?
How does the understanding of the scientific process impact the reception of the artwork, and vice versa?

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