At One with DNA:
Nancy Burson’s Exhibition "Looking Up" at Deutsche Bank Wall Street
Installation view, Looking Up (The Human Face)
at Deutsche Bank Wall Street
Since the inception of her career as an artist, Nancy Burson has been interested in the interaction of art and science. In the early 80s, it was Burson who introduced “ morphing”, a computer program that was able to create facial composites. Later her method came to be used by police departments to find missing children by “morphing” their faces to account for age change. The human face, its morphology, and its underlying genetic code are recurring themes in almost all of Burson’s works. In her pictures we encounter images of healers and Jesus look-alikes, composites of modern icons like Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe and political leaders, but also deformed faces, hermaphrodites, and new chimera. Burson’s “transgenic” visions of race and gender ask fundamental questions: Who are we, and how much of who we are can we change? What do we, as humans, all have in common?
First and Second Beauty Composites
(First Composite: Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn,
Grace Kelley, Sophia Loren, and Marilyn Monroe.
Second Composite: Jane Fonda, Jacqueline Bisset,
Diane Keaton, Brooke Shields, and Meryl Streep), 1982,
The current exhibition of Burson’s work, in three locations of Deutsche Bank at 60 Wall Street, not only presents the different stages of Burson’s artistic development; it shows how Burson has moved, in the context of modern “ transgenic art,” through the various discourses in a wondering, inquisitive and self-directed manner. Her path reflecs the moral quandary of all current debates revolving around the possible uses and abuses of genetic science. Burson, it seems, has traveled from a somewhat apprehensive and critical posture to one of positivity almost amounting to faith.
Warhead I (55% Reagan, 45% Brezhnev, less than
1% each of Thatcher, Mitterand, and Deng),
A mini-retrospective of Burson’s work, on view inside the Bank, introduces us to the artist’s concerns at a younger, more political moment. In Warhead (1982), one of her signature works of the mid-1980s, Burson creates a saucy composite of world leaders of the time: Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev morphing into Ronald Reagan, Maggie Thatcher and others. The portrait seems to joke about the futility of morphing by suggesting that all these leaders were cloned from some conservative DNA-gameplan for the 1980s geopolitical scene. In another early work, entitled Baby Elvis (1989-90), Burson takes on Andy Warhol by morphing Elvis back in time to depict him as a premature iconic baby. The work plays off cultural obsessions and wonders, with some amusement, to what extent fame is embedded in physical appearance – DNA as destiny?
The Difference Between Negative and Positive Thought, 2000,
In the following years, Burson moved on to images of healers and their auras. In The Difference Between Positive and Negative Energy Burson sets down the thesis for most of her work in the next decade. Using a gas visualization camera, Burson captures an imprint of different kinds of energy, creating different auras. In the Touch without Touching series, healing is viewed as the manipulation of auras believed to surround the body. Burson explores the potential for the transgenic aspects of bodies, using energetic methods, that Western science has ignored. The healer series is positive and upbeat, in an almost “new age” way, and points to a decided shift in Burson’s artistic discourse.
One (Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha), 2004,
In One (2004), Burson reaches back to her morphing methodology, but employs it in a different way: not as a critical instrument but as a means to express a new syncretic faith. Not incidentally, One is reminiscent of early Christian lenticular imagery and depictions of the vera icon, whose aura continued to interest artists right up through the Renaissance. Jesus, Bhuddha and Mohammed are morphed into one face, superimposed one on the other, all revealed to have startling commonalties. The image suggests that these faces transfixed their worlds because there is some DNA for wonder or peace inscribed on them. In this monumental syncretic credo, Burson continues to be canny in her media. Her artistic vision has moved into an area of interest which combines genetic encoding and transgenic form: Through the personification of an encoded script, the transgenic is equated with the divine.
Touch Without Touching (Heiler Serie), 2000,
Which brings us to The Human Face part of the current exhibition, Looking Up, where two gigantic portraits oversee the public Atrium at 60 Wall street. For some of us, it may be disturbing that, counting up all the DNA on earth today, the average human looks – somewhat Asian? Twenty-two years ago, Burson also created Mankind, and the “typical human” by DNA calculation then looked decidedly Chinese. In this earlier work, the notion of a “typical human” appeared somewhat ominous to the artist. In The Human Face , however, she revels in a transcendent humanism. The same is true for The Human Race Machine, an interactive device containing the software programs Burson created in collaboration with her former husband, David Kramlich. It allows you to view yourself as if you were of another race, gender, or age. Burson declares that 99.7% of humans share common DNA, as if to dispense racism and any value system based on race or gender to the dustbin of history. Burson’s idealistic and hopeful elegy to human oneness overrides current discussions about diversity and multiculturalism. It seems to hark back to the kind of new age universalism spearheaded by Jung during the modern period.
Gary (Heiler Serie), 2000,
Perhaps there are some universal truths after all? The third component of Looking Up is Burson’s ethereal installation out on Wall Street, Truth, best seen in the shadows of the afternoon, and consisting of three different animations of a dove feather falling slowly behind a sparkling, glazed glass. As the feather floats and twists and turns, it pays homage to the miracle of DNA and its dynamic and beautiful double-helix structure. In your imagination, it asks you to restore the peace represented by the absent dove from which the feather fell--and thus make the world one again.
Robert Mahoney/Mark Grünert.