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Nature in the work of contemporary artists - life itself

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Rivane Neuenschwander

Rivane Neuenschwander - life and nature in art

Neuenschwander not only investigates natural phenomena in her practice, she also examines the rhythms of life itself through the intervention of living entities. For her series Carta Faminta (Starving Letters) 2000, Neuenschwander set snails to eat through sheets of rice paper.

The delicate trails of emptiness left in their wake provide a 'text' recounting the snails' presence; their movement across the paper and elementary act of eating.

In the video work Love Lettering 2000, (above) fragments of a love letter are attached to goldfishes' tails.

Their random movement dictates the sequence and combination of words, an indeterminate process that reflects the underlying uncertainty of human relationships themselves.

Another short film, Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue (Ash Wednesday/Epilogue) 2006, (below) features an army of ants transporting brightly colored paper discs.

The title of the piece alludes to a day of carnival, and the insects haul decorative booty almost as if in preparation for their own unlikely celebration.

The unpredictable flow of color is dictated by their rapid movement, an act of natural 'art-making' that is recorded as part of Neuenschwander's own artistic endeavor.

Yet as we view the ants' extraordinary agility with burdens sometimes twice their size, their physical presence in this miniature epic becomes as captivating as its puzzling context.

Their behavior is explained when we learn that the discs consist of sugar-coated confetti, but knowing this detracts little from the incredible artistry of the insects themselves at work.

nature in artNatural processes in art

Ruth Ewan

Ruth Ewan - Psittaciformes Trying to Change the World

Although young Scottish artist Ewan is primarily concerned with politics, protest and propaganda, a 2006 project relied on the ability of 'psittaciformes' - birds including parrots, cockatoos, lorikeets, parakeets and macaws - to imitate the human voice.

Psittaciformes Trying to Change the World featured an aviary of (well cared for) birds trained to chant protest slogans.

Although the results were predictably unpredictable, Ewan's use of the caged animals played interestingly with ideas of repression, captivity and the highly uncertain nature of politicised language - especially when iterated by a bird.


Damien Hirst

natural process and life in art

Within the confines of a characteristic vitrine, A Thousand Years, 1989 (left) depicts an actual life cycle at work.

The intensely immediate process of life and death begins when maggots in a white 'nesting box' turn into flies, then feed on a bloody, severed cow's head.

As the flies swarm, many are electrocuted by an insect-o-cutor positioned above the food source; those that survive lay eggs to continue the cycle of death and renewal.

natural process and life in art

A similar process was also central to In and Out of Love, 1991, an installation on two floors of a vacant building in central London.

The upstairs room contained white canvases with attached pupae, bowls of sugared water, and tropical plants.

Exotic butterflies hatched from the canvases, fed, mated, laid eggs then died. Downstairs, the butterflies' bodies were shown embedded in canvases of monochromatic gloss paint (left).

Contradictory reports exist as to how the butterflies were attached to the paintings. Some claim that they were left to fly randomly onto wet paint where they stuck fast and died; others, that they were added once dead.

What is certain, however, is that In and Out of Love marked the first appearance of Hirst's butterfly paintings: a long series of increasingly complex works featuring nature at its most visually compelling.


Eduardo Kac

genetic science in art

Alba, a DNA cross between an albino rabbit and a phosphorescent jellyfish, made headlines in 2000.

The creation of Chicago artist Kac and a team of French genetic researchers, Alba was the world's first "transgenic artwork", her fluorescing body a modification of life itself.

The rabbit's proclaimed purpose as art object pushed the idea of authorship, intention and morality to unprecedented limits, although Kac himself saw her as just one element of a project including "the public debate generated... and the social integration of the rabbit (in this case, in the context of my family.)"

Kac's plans were thwarted, however, when the genetics team responsible for Alba's creation responded to adverse publicity by refusing to let her leave the laboratory.

Few ever saw the rabbit, and although she was reported to have died in 2002, no evidence was given.

Furthermore, many scientists dispute the image provided by Kac (above), claiming that the fluorescing gene would only affect skin, not fur.

This attempt to turn existence into art defied expectation by taking on an unforeseen life of its own.


Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr

natural science in art

Science, life and art take on a symbiotic relationship in the work of Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, who since 1996 have been experimenting with the use of tissue culture in art - both are former research fellows at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory at Harvard Medical School.

Their projects have included Victimless Leather (left), in which a tiny skin coat was grown on a specially shaped scaffolding, and Disembodied Cuisine, in which tissue from a frog was grown into a living culture of frog-meat.

This was later eaten by the artists - and anyone else willing to have a taste.


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