CAMBRIDGE — “Symbionts: Contemporary Artists and the Biosphere,” a new exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, is not for the faint of heart nor the weak of stomach. There are things alive here, and growing; and there are signs of life, especially its byproducts, that might prompt a biological response of your own. A blanket warning feels only fair: If you go, don’t plan lunch too soon before or after, unless you’re willing to risk spontaneously producing some byproduct yourself.
I suppressed a gag reflex at least once as I realized that what I’d nosed in close to get a better look at was made of something most of us would cross the street to avoid (or, if you’re a dog person, routinely pick up in plastic baggies). “Symbionts” — as briefly as possible, two lifeforms in various states of codependence, none of which are present here, unless we’re one of them — is as ambitious as it is more than occasionally kind of gross. Those qualities also serve nicely as a summary of “bio art,” the ever-evolving field that is the show’s reason for being.
As it sounds, bio art is art produced with an embrace of the life sciences. At its best, it’s less about finished products than dynamic systems, as varied and sometimes unpredictable as life itself. This, inevitably, gets messy, which is the point; and on a few occasions, the work in “Symbionts” misses it completely. But the work that’s allowed to bloom, sometimes literally, lends the show a scalar quality that prompts really big thinking, from the cellular level to the grand symphony of life itself at planetary scale.
As a term, “bio art” can be traced to the late 1990s, when the Brazilian American artist Eduardo Kac is said to have coined it; he conceived of a genetic manipulation of a rabbit bred with fluorescent jellyfish proteins to produce a live, otherwise-normal bunny that glowed green under UV light. But its roots stretch at least as far back as the late 1960s when ecologically-conscious artmaking emerged as an offshoot of conceptualism.
Its philosophy dovetailed nicely with the era’s back-to-the-land movement, which rejected urbanity as an inhuman dead end. In the late 1960s, the artist couple Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison decided they would make art only to the benefit of the natural environment, leading them to learn soil cultivation techniques, the dynamics of watersheds, and urban planning strategies — all of which they’ve employed in their work.
More immediately, they’ve installed fish farms, vegetable plots, and orchards in museum galleries around the globe and served the edible results to audiences. Their work closed the circle between humanity at its creative best, and the astonishing, self-sustaining natural order that allowed it to be. Putting it in a museum, as art, made nature a canonized wonder, as precious as any painting or sculpture. It also crystallized what was at stake: nature itself, no longer able to exist in the world, reduced to an indoor simulation.
How we get from there to Jenna Sutela’s “Gut Flora,” 2022, four brown panels in the List’s second gallery carved to depict various flowers, epitomizes how futile categorization can be. Biological they are: Materially, Sutela’s pieces are “fired mammalian dung glazed in breastmilk”; the images scored into the surface are of floral arrangements she received after giving birth. A lengthy explanation of the vital bacteria that live in each of our stomachs leaps to the idea of “fecal therapy” — the transplant of healthy stool blooming with happy bacteria into a colon bereft of it — “only recently accepted by western medicine.” Fascinating, indeed.
But the wonder of it doesn’t track with the works’ blunt material one-liner. They’re little more than a cheap shock that weaken the whole endeavor. Right beside them was a more poetic — but equally stomach-turning — attempt to aestheticize bodily function: Nour Mobarak’s “Reproductive Logistics,” 2020, a colony of mycelium fungus contained in a wooden crate held together by secretions both plant and human; in the feathery fungal web, bright splotches of color indicate the sperm of the artist’s former lovers.
However ambitious, the show is far from coherent. “Symbionts,” really, is a barely-tangentially related collection whose associations to living processes run a broad gamut. Also sharing space with Sutela in what felt like the gastro-intestinal room was Candice Lin’s “Memory (Study #2),” 2016, a slow-blooming lion’s mane mushroom rooted in a glistening net of ceramic viscera and fed by a spritz bottle of distilled urine (its favorite food, administered by gallery attendants who are surely looking more closely at their terms of employment); and Jes Fan’s “Systems II,” 2018, a structural grid of what was surely intended to look like entrails, fitted with gelatinous blobs.
Lin’s work, both strangely beautiful and unabashedly repulsive, is a standout here for emanating purpose: Even in an unforgiving world of burgeoning waste, life finds a way. It found kinship with one of bio art’s current leading lights, Anicka Yi, whose “Living and Dying in the Bacteriacene,” 2019, was bubbling away in small aquarium nearby. A hexagonal grid mimicking (I assume) cellular structure serves as an underwater trellis for a blooming colony of spirogyra. The algae, seen as an invasive nuisance in things like aquariums, is a vital, oxygen-producing part of the aquatic ecosystem in the real world. Nurturing it here, Yi resets human priorities regarding nature as they should be: to be life-sustaining, not decorative, which sadly still needs to be said.
The show’s real purpose, intentional or not, is to put on display how nascent and evolving the field remains. And there are indeed moments of elegant, contemplative grace. “Confronting Vegetal Otherness: Skotopoiesis,” 2015, a video piece by Špela Petrič, is a poetic take on human imposition on natural processes; a spectator casts a long shadow on an illuminated field of watercress, causing the shaded plants to grow long and spindly in their search for light. The show is also inevitably apocalyptic, given the current rate of planetary despoilment: Gilberto Esparza’s alarming cyborgian cultivation machine — which filters wastewater from a dozen sites around the city to feed a nucleus teeming with protozoa, algae, and crustaceans — had the bleak air of post-armageddon survivalism.
Speaking of survival, “Symbionts” proposes an experiment: In the small gallery across the lobby from the main space, 20 daddy-longlegs spiders were released at the show’s opening in late October to make their own way in the wide open space. It’s a piece by the French artist Pierre Huyghe, whose work often embodies the messy, open-ended happenstance of life just doing its thing. (The space is shared by a pool of pink sand and a sweetly acrid scent feature, a work by Pamela Rosenkranz, which, while lovely, made little sense in context.)
Arachnophobes take note: The spiders are hard to spot, and on the loose; hunting around, I only counted seven, whether lingering up high or crawling along the ground. Maybe they made a break for it, and who could blame them? After much of what I’d seen, I could relate.
SYMBIONTS: CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS AND THE BIOSPHERE
Through Feb. 26. MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St., Cambridge. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.