The project Decon explores the use of biotechnology methods and materials as art media, for the development of paintings literally alive that deconstruct themselves while exhibited. In Decon replicas of Piet Mondrian geometric paintings were created using bacterial support medium. The colors in these paintings are progressively degraded by Pseudomonas putida bacteria. This technology is based in the work of Dr. Lígia Martins, at the Instituto de Biologia Química e Biológica in Lisbon, where the project has been developed. In her laboratory scientists research biological strategies to degrade highly pollutant textile dyes using bacteria harmless to human beings and to the environment. During the development of Decon, the artist and her collaborators have researched the optimal conditions to influence bacterial activity, adapting the color degradation rate to the environmental conditions of a museum. The objective was to achieve a slow decomposition of the images during the entire duration of their public exhibition. Thus, the artwork is something literally alive, and as such destined to die and decompose, as all of us are.

The project Decon aims the exploration of biotechnology as new art medium, but also to show that scientists and artists can collaborate directly in the development of a common project. As such, Decon provides an example of interaction between artists and researchers that counters the dogma that Science and Art are two separate cultures.1

It is also an objective of Decon to carry the process of artistic creation into the scientific research laboratory, thus promoting the awareness of artists' motivations and creative process by scientists. Naturally, the opposite is equally true, with the artist becoming more familiar with the scientific method.

In brief, Decon consists in Plexiglas boxes with approximately 50 * 50 * 6 cm, reproducing the geometric paintings of Piet Mondrian (as for instance «Blue Plane»), by filling sections of the boxes with bacterial growth medium (agar) mixed with appropriate pigments. The boxes are a giant version of the so called Petri dishes, generally used to culture bacteria. The bacteria (Pseudomonas putida) are incorporated in the medium, and are capable of degrading the pigments as they proliferate. As a consequence, with time, the paintings of Decon become progressively empty of all color. In addition, Decon has a characteristic imported from scientific research: In order to facilitate the observation, the understanding of the live dynamics of the artwork, and to approach Decon to the scientific discourse, the paintings being degraded are exhibited together with the same painting prepared in the absence of bacteria—and that as a consequence does not degrade. This concept is usually known in science as the «control group».

Deconstructing mondrian's constructivism

The choice of Mondrian as the author of the images being reproduced is not accidental. To understand this option it is necessary to understand some of Mondrian's ideas related to geometric abstractionism he named Neo-plasticism.

Piet Cornelius Mondrian was born in 1872 in Amersfoort, the Netherlands. In 1892 he moved to Amsterdam where he got a scholarship to study painting in the Rijksacademie. During the four years of studies he supported himself by giving private lessons of drawing, copying museum pieces, drawing scientific illustrations, and occasionally selling landscape paintings. In 1908 Modrian became fascinated with Theosophy, a type of religious mysticism based on the teachings of Buda and Brahmin. He represented the cycles of reincarnation, from birth, to blossoming and to decay, in delicate watercolors and paintings of flowers.

In 1911 he moved to Paris where he discovered the work of Picasso and Braque. Mondrian embraced cubism and between 1912 and 1914 his painting started to incorporate geometric shapes in works where the theosophical ideas could be find in dialogue with the forces of nature.

When the First World War began, Mondrian was visiting his family in the Netherlands where he was forced to stay until the end of the war in 1919. His paintings from those four years show the influences he received in Paris, together with a new simplicity of colour and line leading to the development of his philosophy of a new abstractionism he named New-plasticism.2 When the war ended, Mondrian, aged 47, returned to Paris. His work at that time showed a radical change. The Neo-plasticism had a dynamic equilibrium of primary color blocks, with black lines separating white and grey planes. In 1925, after some years of hard life, his recognition became to grow. His paintings were there bought by many collectors and exhibited in Europe and America. In 1938, with the prospect of a new war, Mondrian moved to England, and in 1940 to New York. At this time the black lines in his paintings started being replaced by color lines. In the painting «Victory Boogie Woogie», the last painting he made before his death in 1944, small blocks of color danced on the canvas surface. In 1945 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) hold a retrospective exhibition of Mondrian's work, recognizing his stand within the history of modern art.

To understand the significance of deconstructing Mondrian's paintings, it is necessary to consider the dynamics and the relations between planes, space and colors in the paintings of Mondrian. Considering the designation he selected to name his work: «Nieuwe Beelding», that he translated as «New Plastic», it is necessary to understand the word «plastic» generates some confusion when used in relation to art, and thus became rarely used in articles and discussions within this field. In English it is generally understood as a malleable medium that acquires a three dimensional shape. However, in Dutch «Beelding» has a different meaning. The extent of the difference can be appreciated «The New Plastic Painting» from 19173, a text where the author describes a way of creating based and supported on construction: juxtaposing something against, and with something else. This aspect of his reasoning seems to take him close to an architecture of space, but Mondrian clarifies this issue. The architectural form absorbs the constructive relation in itself due to its function. In other words, the solutions he searched and proposed to balance its weights, tensions, pressures, is hidden in the final object. Mondrian believed if the means were pure enough the painting could not only reveal as it had been constructed, but also how it dealt with tensions, weights and pressures, and also how these «plastic» relations would became themselves expressed. All the reasoning becomes clearer when we consider the abstract work of painters contemporary of Mondrian.

Malevich comes from iconographic origins, he was a true image maker. If one considers his «Black square», a square is a square, that is a square and not much else. Kandinsky, in 1911, releases the objective identity of his shapes from his initial abstract compositions, dissolves the shapes and makes them float in a moving space. Mondrian was not interested in those expressive qualities of Kandinsky, nor in the gestalt characteristics of his shapes. As Bridget Riley describes in her lecture for the Mondrian retrospective exhibition in the MoMA in 1995 «Mondrian is not at all interested in what type of expressive quality, in the Gestalt characteristics of his means, but very much in what is going on visually in his painting. This is a central aspect of his «realism». Whenever anyone puts some colours, some lines, some forms onto a flat surface, they look as though they are taking up different positions in space».4

The lines derived from trunks and branches from the trees in Mondrian's paintings, made way, in 1912, to lines derived from the reconstruction of the visible space in synthetic cubism. The geometric abstraction has its origins in the plane surfaces of synthetic cubism, a way to formalize things estrange to Mondrian. And the juxtaposed shapes in synthetic cubism derive ultimately from the plane surfaces of Gauguin. Mondrian's loyalty was closer to the impressionists, and his affiliation was greater with Seurat's concern in translating a sensation through a series of quick brush strokes.5

A Mondrian painting cannot be simply reduced to a group of rectangles in blue, red, yellow, and white. The pieces are conceived, as it can be seen from the unfinished canvas, as a group of lines. Those lines move in the space with the strength of a thunderstorm and the delicacy of a bird. Mondrian searched the infinitum. And while a shape has boundaries, a line can be indefinitely extended, as well as the open space between two parallel lines is unlimited.6

In relation to the personality and philosophy of this author much can be learned from the appearance of his studio. «Everything was spotless white, like a laboratory. In a light smock, with his clean-shaven face, taciturn, wearing his heavy glasses, Mondrian seemed more a scientist or priest than an artist. The only relief to all the white were large matboards, rectangles in yellow, red and blue, hung in asymmetric arrangements on all the walls. Peering at me through his glasses, he noticed my glance and said: ‘I've arranged these to make it more cheerful.’»7

This environment is completely in accordance with the idea of a studio as a research laboratory or as a cell, as well as with the idea of the artist as a scientific researcher. Mondrian felt it was important for an artist to present accurately his artistic ambitions.

There is another atitude from Mondrian that connects with the idea of artist-scientist, searching for the deap meaning of the misteries of live and death: «Intense involvement with living things is involvement with death. If you follow nature, wrote Mondrian in 1920, you have to accept ‘whatever is capricious and twisted in nature'. If the capricious is beautiful, it is also tragic: ‘If you follow nature you will not be able to vanquish the tragic to any real degree in your art. It is certainly true that naturalistic painting makes us feel a harmony which is beyond the tragic, but it does not express this in a clear and definite way, since it is not confined to expressing relations of equilibrium. Let us recognise the fact once and for all: the natural appearance, natural form, natural colour, natural rhythm, natural relations most often express the tragic… We must free ourselves from our attachment to the external, for only then do we transcend the tragic, and are enabled consciously to contemplate the repose which is within all things.»8 In other words, for Mondrian the positive and the negative are the causes for all action, all movement, tension and pressure, that should be met in an equilibrium of forces. The positive and the negative should come together to create harmony.9

Recently some neurobiology research groups have started to consider the progress in the visual arts and visual perception at the level of the visual cortex and visual pathways. A neubiological analysis of several artists by Dr. Margaret Livingstone from Harvard, concluded that impressionists, like Seurat, were playing its tricks on some areas of the visual cortex. According to Livingstone, although individual brush strokes are large enough to be individually discriminated by the secondary cerebral pathway (predominantly sensitive to shapes), the strokes are too small to be individually discriminated by the cerebral pathway sensitive to color.10 Thus, when an impressionist painting is observed from a distance the colours fuse. Op-Art is another example related with Mondrian's work, that has been of interest to neurobiologists. For instance, the last work of Mondrian, the already mentioned «Broadway Boogie Woogie», presents itself as something considerably unstable, as if the lines are jumping and dancing on the canvas surface. According to Livingstone the combination of colors used by Mondrian in this painting (yellow lines over a non completely white background) are an extremely strong stimuli to cerebral pathway three (that detects shapes), while simultaneously these lines do not particularly stimulate the pathway one (that identifies borders), that in this case cannot find them between the two colors in question and, as a consequence, cannot fix the lines in a stationary position.11

One of the techniques used for the study of the above mentioned cerebral pathways is functional magnetic resonance of the brain. In experiments performed at Dr. Semmir Zeki in London, it was found that abstract multicoloured paintings, such as the ones from Mondrian, can stimulate the pathway V4 but not other pathways beyond that one. While figurative paintings can stimulate all areas of the visual cortex.12 By reducing the shapes of the world that stimulate the visual córtex to elements progressively more simple, modern artists specified and reduced the cerebral visual pathways being triggered by their works. The question now is to understand the reason for such evolution, the intentionality, and the success this strategy has been having in the reception of these artworks.13

But following the analysis of the dynamism found in Mondrian's paintings, that are reproduced in Decon, it is important to consider another dimension of these works. Although a superficial observation of one of Mondrian's geometric paintings may suggest they are static and limited to the canvas supporting them, in reality these artworks formally address movement and visual dynamics, questioning live itself, and its equilibrium of forces, pressures and weights. As a consequence, the apparently simple option for the reproduction of Mondrian's paintings in Decon, revealed itself replete of significance corresponding to a deep identification with the work and thought of the artist. Not only it is possible to find in Decon the shapes and colors of the «Neuwe Beelding», as it is also possible to discover some of the thematic and philosophical essence of Mondrian's work.

From all of the above, Decon aims to create an artwork literally alive and continuously changing. Being an artwork that deconstructs, or if one prefers, decomposes itself. Deconstruction and decomposition can signify deconstruction, in the sense proposed by Derrida,14 but can also be understood as destruction or putrefaction. Decon's paintings are artworks that only exist while they are being decomposing. Thus, they can be interpreted as a process of death and decomposition of the artwork itself—a concept that has been explored by the artist in her previous work.15 For example in Nature?, where the artwork are live butterflies with modified wing patterns.16 As any live organism those butterflies have a life-span. Thus they are an example of an artwork that literally lives and dies.

The decontamination of the medium: decomposing the colors

It is also relevant to understand the science involved in the process of pigment degradation in Decon. The laboratory of Dr. Lígia Martins is focused on biocatalysis, a designation that includes the use of microrganisms and enzymes for the improvement of production processes, reducing the energy and raw material consumption of traditional processes, simultaneously generating less toxic waste.17 Biocatalysis is also an useful tool for the environment. Some of the major objectives of this field are:

  • Development of safe environmental processes;
  • An opportunity for the production of clean and renewable energy;
  • The elimination of compounds toxic for the environment through biological processes (bioremediation).

Bioremediation is one of the areas of biocatalysis researching strategies to eliminate organic pollutants toxic for live beings.18 It works through the use of live microrganisms, that can already be found in nature, or enzymes isolated from those microrganisms, for the degradation of persistent contaminants and their transformation in less toxic or non-toxic compounds. When these biological strategies have been compared with traditional chemical processes, it has been found that bioremediation is generally a safer, less disturbing for the environment, and economically more efficient in the treatment of pollutants.19

A large number of microrganisms capable of degrading compounds previously considered non-degradable, have been recently isolated and studied. This observation suggests that in conditions of great evolutionary pressure, there is a significant adaptability of microrganisms towards the degradation of these pollutant compounds. This phenomenon can be exploited for the removal of environmental pollution through biotechnological processes. There is, therefore, a need to accelerate the evolutionary adaptation of these microrganisms and their biological pathways to pollutants. Moreover, the majority of microbial activities exploited for biotechnology applications are not optimized and can, almost without exceptions, be improved.
The design of improvements in biocatalysis can include different optimizing strategies:

  • The creation of new metabolic pathways;
  • The improvement (engineering) of existing metabolic pathways;
  • The functional control of non-productive pathways, or pathways leading to the production of toxic or highly reactive intermediary products.

The research specifically related to Decon relates to the management of pollutants derived from textile industries. The traditional industries of dyes for the coloring of textiles, leathers, and the production of cosmetics have been important for the European economy in the 20th century. In recent years, in spite of the continued presence of some important companies in Europe, many of these industries have moved their production to new countries, in particular India and China, due to lower production costs and more permissive environmental quotas.20

In textile industry there is a group of pigments, named «azoic», that are the most commonly used for the achievement of novel color tones. This represents an environmental problem for manufacturers and consumers, as this type of pigments are associated with environmental toxicity. During the process of dying, between 10% and 40% of the pigment remains dissolved in the water. As a consequence, the residual water requires treatment, before being safely released in the environment. In response to the major questions related to toxicity of these pigments the European Commission adopted directive 2002/06/CE limiting the use of some azoic dies.21

The research being developed in the host laboratory (sophied project: Novel Sustainable Bioprocesses for European Colour Industries22) is directed towards the optimization of the use of bacteria (Pseudomonas putida) for the degradation of azoic pigments. Surprisingly the scientific research directed towards the use bacteria in improving environmental problems is still recent and very limited.

Deconstruction, decontamination, decomposition

Decon brings together elements from the history of art and biotechnology research in order to create artworks supporting a dynamic perception. Biology and biotechnology provide new media for artistic creation that cannot be replaced by any other traditional or even electronic media. In Decon, it becomes possible to visualize the dematerialization of the artwork: objects that are usually classified as final and permanent—the reproductions of Mondrian paintings—are progressively deconstructed or decomposed during the period of their public exhibition. The media itself, in this case the bacteria and the conditions under which they grow, can be manipulated to accelerate or slow down the decoloring process. But in a certain way, and this is a fascinating characteristic of biological systems, there is always some unpredictability in the process. Thus, the bacteria can be seen as collaborators or assistants in the process of artistic creation, being simultaneously part of the artwork. The biotechnology allows, therefore, to move beyond the approximation to what is alive, or the simulation of life. Decon is an example of an artwork literally alive, and as such, it ages, dies, and decomposes.



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