The Pit, a small artist-run gallery, sits semi-hidden in a commercial and industrial neighborhood north of Los Angeles. Artists Devon Oder and Adam Miller founded the gallery in 2014, exhibiting emerging artists in tightly curated group shows alongside at least one well-established artist. The Pit, located in a converted car mechanic’s garage, has the same anonymously beige exterior as the neighboring businesses. But its out-of-the-way location and undistinguishable architecture belie the impact the space has had during its short lifetime. On clear days, when approaching the gallery’s entrance, the combination of the Southern California sun mixed with the Pit’s hard fluorescent lights will make your eyes water, as if you’ve been staring at a mirage for too long.
Visual deception and optical illusions permeate the Pit’s current show, Flavr Savr*, curated by Alexandra Gaty. The exhibition title refers to the first genetically modified food approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Engineered and developed in the early 1990s, Flavr Savr was a tomato of middling quality designed to ripen slower, thereby extending its shelf life. The FDA decided that the tomato needed no special labeling to delineate its genetic modification because its health risks and nutritional composition were no different from other tomatoes on the market.
Flavr Savr* has, as its background noise, the fear of unforeseen consequences that result from explicit human interference with the invisible, microscopic interventions into the systems we take for granted, like the food or healthcare system. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s wallpaper, GMO Animals, Crops, Labs (The Infinity Engine) (2014), most explicitly tackles the dilemma of genetic modification and acts as a backdrop for the other video and sculpture pieces throughout the space. The wallpaper bears images, locations, and brief descriptions of research in genetically modified organisms, including glow-in-the-dark cats, 3D-printed human limbs, and cloned pit bulls and Afghan hounds. Many of the descriptions refer to experiments that either had an eventual practical application (developing pesticide-resistant crops or furthering AIDS research with glow-in-the-dark cats) or an idiosyncratic one (cloning pit bulls in order “to memorialize Bernann McKinney’s deceased pet Booger”).
Just as artists often make political, philosophical, and moral points through their work, Leeson’s GMO Animals focuses on the political, philosophical, and moral points that scientists have made through their research on genetically modified organisms. Take for instance the “GLO FISH” entry on the wallpaper, which has as its motivation: “First GM organism sold as a pet.” The desire for a glow-in-the-dark fish has implications beyond the lifespan of research. It creates demand and suggests that the scientists and their funders have certain assumptions about the good and proper role that animals play in society—namely, the same role that a painting above a couch might fill. As Jessica Pierce recently wrote in the New York Times, “Woe to the fish expected to live its entire life in six cups of water.” Designer pets are nothing new, but Leeson shows how much more sophisticated our genetic modifications of animals have become. Her straightforward presentation of this research collapses the distinction between ethics and aesthetics with chilling efficiency.
The show’s inversion of expectations continues with Danielle Dean’s hand-drawn animation, True Red (2015), which depicts the metamorphosis of a popular Nike skateboarding shoe into dozens of other forms. The iconic red shoe morphs into a figure in a fetal position, a flying bat (the animal), a bulging fist, a dark puddle that an iPhone falls into, and a standing figure whose hair flies off her head, which reveals a different figure wearing a surgical mask. The animation’s eerie, machine-like drone in the background mutes the shoe’s slapstick mutations, producing a hypnotic and haunting tone.
Elsewhere, in Kathleen Ryan’s Bacchante (2016), a cluster of concrete and marble balloons dangles from a slick granite plinth reinforced with steel earthquake retrofitting. The cluster of stone balloons is made to look like a branch of grapes hanging off a platter. The whole piece weighs hundreds of pounds, making the paradoxical dangling action of the balloon–grapes that much more visually confusing and dangerous seeming. The piece’s very presence implies a perilousness that, combined with Leeson’s research into pesticide-resistant crops, suggests a bacchanal gone wrong.
At its heart, Flavr Savr* appraises the moral calculus involved in controlling and losing control of one’s environment. The verdict has been determined by Alexandra Gaty, who has curated a protest rather than an inquiry. Despite the nefariousness the curator ascribes to these scientific and political interventions, the artists’ work shines a hard light on the complicated ethics of an unexamined aesthetics.
Flavr Savr* is on view at the Pit in Los Angeles through May 22, 2016.