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22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

URI art exhibition to focus on genetic revolution

KINGSTON, R.I. -- September 10, 2002 -- A continuous, 50-foot image of white, male rowers will glide along the top wall of nearly half of the University of Rhode Island’s Main Galley in the Fine Arts Center from Oct. 17 through Dec. 8. The reception will be held Sunday afternoon, Oct.20 from 2 to 4 p.m.

The rowing image is just one of 40 powerful works by 15 contemporary artists that compose Translations/Transgressions, a sure-fire blockbuster exhibit timed to coincide and complement the University’s semester-long Honors Colloquium "Genetic Technology and Public Policy in the New Millennium." The colloquium, a series of public lectures, is designed to stimulate thoughtful reflection on the ethical, social, and legal questions raised by the unlocking of the human genome.

Contemporary artist Lisa Young created the frieze of the seemingly endless rowers from photographs she found in old Harvard Crimson yearbooks. A danger lurks, however, just beneath the water’s peaceful surface. Young has placed the rowers on blueprint paper. Is this then, a reproduction plan to scheme to clone the prowess of the idealized white male the work seems to ask?

Be prepared. Everything in this exhibit encourages you to ponder and question. The artists themselves are suspicious of genetic engineering and the authority of science and want you to be too. While taking on such subjects as breeding, cloning, and privacy, the artists also reminds us that these questions have been raised before.

The exhibition was two years in the making, according to its curator Judith Tolnick, who has helped visually interpret three other Honors Colloquiums held at URI, including one on death, another on the Vietnam War, and one on the environment.

Tolnick selected art for this Colloquium from a wide-range of contemporary artists, some with international reputations, others just now being discovered, who use both modern and traditional mediums, including oil on linen, porcelain, marble, photography, and video to "translate" the genetic theme and to point out its "transgressions."

For example, artist Bryan Crockett creates a Frankenstein-like baby mouse, born in marble, implying that it’s coming straight from the confines of a laboratory. Judy Fox brings several fictional characters such as Friar Tuck to life (art) as animated children, warning us perhaps about the potential application of stored DNA. Gary Schneider’s Genetic Self-Portrait includes life-sized imprints of his hands which display his own unique patterns but are held in a gesture of surrender.

URI’s exhibit is not the first to focus on this subject, according to Tolnick. Elaborate exhibits on the topic have begun sprouting up across the world for the past two years, she points out.

"Contemporary artists are concerned with identity issues so it’s only natural that genetics would become integrated into their works," explains Tolnick.

There is an exhibition within the exhibition. A display of historical texts which include Hilter’s Mien Kampf and racist literature on the now discredited eugenics movement will serve as an exhibition centerpiece. (Eugenics, for those whose memory has faded, is the study and related project of hereditary improvement, especially selected breeding.) The texts are offensive, warns Tolnick who says the exhibition does not condone the contents, but offers these texts as historical reference. Eugenics is not a new topic, emerging with the Genome Project, Tolnick stresses. During the 1920s and 1930s, 8,300 people were sterilized in West Virginia alone.

Tolnick said she and her students had no problem locating the texts. Many were taken from the shelves of the URI Library. Colleges, including land grant universities, in particular, were interested in "Fitter Families." In fact, the Eastern State Exposition in Springfield, Mass. actually graded the fitness of families.

The point is, Tolnick says, when discussing these issues, we must acknowledge the lessons of the past before stepping into the future.

Media contact: Jan Wenzel, 874-2116

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