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Jellyfish DNA in a rabbit? It's science; it's art; it's "Gene(sis)" at the Berkeley Art Museum.

By Karen Macklin

Published on September 03,2003

Eduardo Kac's GFP Bunny looks benign enough on the black-and-white promotional materials for the Berkeley Art Museum's latest exhibit. But if you go to the art house itself, you'll see Kac's photograph in full color, in which the same live rabbit, shown under ultraviolet light, is a glowing shade of green. So you're thinking, "That can't be natural." Well, it isn't. The artist, with the help of a scientist, injected jellyfish DNA into the embryo of an albino rabbit, and voilĂ  -- a bunny that fits in better at Burning Man than on a farm. Both a science and art experiment, Kac's controversially transgenic bunnyfish is the perfect poster child for BAM's current show, "Gene(sis)." Yet it's just a drop in the petri dish.

"Gene(sis)" -- subtitled "Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics" -- is a multifaceted visual experience that investigates what the mapping of the human genome means to our world -- emotionally, aesthetically, and scientifically. The exhibit includes more than 100 works by nationally recognized artists who take on unwieldy issues like the ethics of genetic research, the questions of DNA ownership, and the implications of cloning. While this important discussion is normally reserved for researchers toting jargon-riddled textbooks, it's articulated here through tactile and visual media, making comprehension for the layperson not only possible, but also inviting.

"One of the great things about this show is that it crosses so many disciplines," says Constance Lewallen, senior curator for exhibitions at BAM, in a recent phone interview. "It's not as if it's all critical or positive, but it really makes you think about these issues in a way that's different than before."

Illustrating her point is an astounding range of work. In Chimera Obscura by Shawn Brixey and Richard Rinehart, visitors guide a remote-controlled robot through a maze in the shape of a giant thumbprint. You can't see the maze while controlling the robot, so you have to depend on clues dropped by others in order to make progress. It's about finding your way through cooperation and competition, Lewallen says, as scientists did while mapping the genome. In other photos, one woman brushes wrinkles off another with a powder puff, and a 75-year-old woman nurses a baby. There are portraits of blood, taxidermied frogs sporting designer shorts, and a two-part installation by artist Dario Robleto about transubstantiation: He created a memorial for his mother by taking her Motown records (which hold traces of her DNA), grinding them up, and placing them in petri dishes labeled with names of soul divas like Diana Ross. BAM even commissioned new work by local artists Jim Campbell and Gail Wight for this exhibit.

"Gene(sis)" isn't limited to the gallery walls and halls; it also features a full schedule of programs running in tandem with the exhibit, including movies at the Pacific Film Archive. BAM encourages you to bring a friend -- but leave your clones at home.