This work is a contemporary interpretation of the traditional subjects of awe and wonder. Cabinets of curiosities were popular during the late Renaissance and Baroque periods and serve as a springboard for this exhibition. Inspired by the age of exploration and discovery, where collections were accumulated to create a microscopic world of curiosities, my aim was to create a collection that is unique, unfamiliar as well as that which involves reflections relevant the 21st century. In our age where almost all has been discovered and documented, the search is for the curious in the unfamiliar. This body of work was motivated by current debate around genetic engineering of plants, animals and humans as well as the history of the curiosity cabinet.

Cross-species hybrid creatures have been part of our imaginary for millennia. In Greek mythology, for example, the Chimera was a fire-breathing creature represented as a composite of a lion, goat, and serpent. Gaspar Schott, a Jesuit, whose Physica Curiosa sive Mirabilia Naturae et Artist, was first published in 1662. It consisted of engravings of mythical beasts, one of which he called a Su. This beast was described as having a very deformed shape, a monstrous presence, a great ravener and an untameable wild beast believed to have existed in Patagonia. There are also images of horned hares and rabbits all of which seem to have ancient origins. Sculptures and paintings of chimeras from ancient Greece to the Middle Ages and on to modern avant-garde movements, inhabit museums worldwide. Images from the Nuremberg Chronicle reveal humans with abnormal features. Amongst these is a man with goats feet and rams horns and a woman with grossly elongated ears. In 1650, Jonston published images including a lion with an eagle’s head along with an accompanying text.

Chimeras, however, are no longer a subject of the imaginary. Today, nearly 20 years after the first transgenic animal, they are being routinely created in laboratories and are slowly becoming part of the larger genescape. The term chimera has now become a double-entendre. In Greek mythology and other western constructs, the chimera was described as a monstrous, hybrid creature. As a biological term, spelt chimaera, it refers to an organism where individual cells do not have the same genetic composition as one another. Chimaeras are produced as an intermediate stage in some methods of genetic modification.

Before I delve into genetic engineering, it would be wise to refer to the wunderkammer or curiosity cabinet, as it underpins this work. The cabinet of fine arts, or kunstkammer, and wonder room or wunderkammer, housed a variety of objects ranging from biological abnormalities and rare geological specimens to artefacts from distant lands and unusually crafted art. Collectors, mainly princes, wealthy aristocrats, and scholars, sought man-made and natural objects that possessed some element of the extraordinary, unusual, rare or exotic. This body of work continues this tradition by reflecting the rarities, exotica and marvels of the present-day. As the popular curiosity cabinets of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, this work blurs the boundaries of accepted categories and definitions and hopefully evokes in the viewer a sense of wonder and astonishment. The principal tenets of Renaissance humanism and the significant events of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including geographical discoveries, the growth of the printing industry, and scientific advancements, all contributed to genesis of the wunderkammer. The cabinets, rooms of art and marvels varied widely according to the special interest of the collector and his financial resources. The unifying characteristic of these collections was the display and puzzling juxtaposition of natural specimens, works of art, and other curious items within a limited space. The objects exhibited fulfilled one or more of the following criteria established by Renaissance and Baroque collectors: novelty or rarity, the foreign, exotic or peculiar, unusually large or small scales, exceptional craftsmanship, verisimilitude, transcendence and surprise. The cabinet of curiosity is thus an appropriate container in which to house these abnormal creations.

Dolly the sheep became a scientific sensation when her birth was announced in 1997. Her relatively early death in February 2003 sparked the debate about the ethics of cloning research and the long-term health of clones. Of the issues raised by the idea of cloning humans, the biological hazards are of tangible concern. Prominent researchers have been arguing that cloning animals and humans in particular poses great risk.

Only a small percentage of cloned animals survive to birth, and those that do are usually subject to a host of health problems. As genetic engineering continues to be developed in the safe harbour of scientific rationalism, supported by global capital, it unfortunately remains partially sheltered from larger social debates on ethics, the patenting of new animals created in laboratories and of genes. Debate over animal patents has broadened to encompass patents on genetically engineered human cell lines and synthetic constructs (e.g., “plasmids”) incorporating human genes.

The use of genetics in art offers a reflection on these new developments from a social and ethical point of view. It foregrounds related issues such as the domestic and social integration of transgenic animals, arbitrary delineation of the concept of “normalcy” through genetic testing, enhancement and therapy, health insurance discrimination based on results of genetic testing, and the serious dangers of eugenics. However, as we try to negotiate current disputes, we can anticipate that transgenics will be an integral part of our existence in the future.

Jonstons composite lion eagle from 1650
Gaspar Schott’s, Su from his Physica Curiosa sive Mirabilia Naturae et Artist
Images from the Nuremberg Chronicle

See Also: The Exhibition