Oron Catts: The artist, his lab, and his semi-living work

Oron Catts works in a zone where stem cells and absurdist art exist in tense alignment. Andrew Masterson investigates.

Oron Catts.
Oron Catts.
Marnie Moon

Throughout October this year the Western Australian city of Perth will demonstrate a faintly disturbing obsession with Frankenstein.

The city will mark the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel being first published, anonymously, in London, with events that include an international conference, several exhibitions and other activities.

It might seem odd that the biggest commemoration of that literary landmark is taking place in a small city on the other side of the world. It all starts to make sense, however, when you learn the identity of one of the principal organisers. Oron Catts – born in Finland and resident in Perth these past 20 years – is pretty much the closest analogue to Dr Frankenstein you’ll find this side of fiction.

Operating at the intersection of art and science, Catts is the director of SymbioticA, a laboratory that explores the aesthetic and philosophical dimensions of tissue culture, based in the school of anatomy at the University of Western Australia.

During his tenure, Catts has also enjoyed roles as a research fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory, a gig at Stanford University’s Department of Art, and a design professorship at London’s Royal College of the Arts.

Mostly, however, he is known for two things: making really creepy bits of art using living cells, and playing a big hand in inventing lab-grown meat.

In 2003 he and longtime collaborator Ionat Zurr grew the world’s first “semi-living steak” from frog cells. It was eventually marinated in apple brandy, then fried up in garlic and honey and served. It tasted awful. But that wasn’t the point. “For me, growing meat in the lab was never about trying to solve the problems of meat production but, rather, to highlight the strangeness of our relationships to other lifeforms,” Catts says.

“Consuming another biological being and incorporating it as part of your own biological body can be seen as the most intimate relationship you can have with other life forms. So what does it mean to eat meat that had no body?

“Surprisingly – or not – this type of question resulted in the fact that Ionat and I were growing meat in the lab more than a decade before it became the hyped techno-fix that it presents itself as now.”

Their work – and later very public events featuring celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal – prompted intense interest in the potential of lab-grown meat as a cruelty-free solution to the cultural and environmental problems of livestock farming. Catts always disagreed, once dismissing the growing of in vitro flesh as nothing more than an expensive exercise in rearranging proteins.

“I see the current fascination with lab-grown meat and the wider field of cellular agriculture as a symptom of our current times, such as hyper-consumerism, the innovation paradigm and the prevailing engineering mindset,” he says now.

“The problem that lab-grown meat is attempting to solve can be addressed much more easily by behavioural change and reduced consumption, but this solution does not represent a business model worth investing in.”

The meat project was arguably an exercise in science – histology, at least – shackled to the service of art, its interpretation by the public skewed slightly by a perceived promise of utility. No such promise has appended to some of Catts’ other endeavours, which makes them all the more fun.

The Victimless Leather project: a prototype of a stitchless jacket grown in a technoscientific ‘body’.
The Victimless Leather project: a prototype of a stitchless jacket grown in a technoscientific ‘body’.
The Tissue Culture & Art Project
There was the Victimless Leather project, for instance, in which he and his colleagues grew an entire leather jacket made of cultured cells on a polymer substrate. If it is cruel to kill an animal to make a garment from its hide, how do we feel about a garment that is itself quasi-alive?

The Pig Wings project in 2001 utilised porcine stem cells to create and grow bone tissue in the shape of wings. The results are now in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

And then there were the Semi-Living Worry Dolls. These were a set of seven small humanish figures constructed from degradable polymers seeded with skin, muscle and bone cells. The dolls, fleshed out and deformed by their own living tissues, each in a little bottle of nourishing medium, have been exhibited in museums around the world.

For all the combination of laboratory techniques, stem-cell research and visual impact in his work, Catts resists any suggestion of common ground between art and science. It is an argument he finds suspicious, and possibly malignant.

“Art and science are very different fields of human endeavour,” he says. “They can be complementary at times and oppositional at others. Artists using the same technological tools as scientists are not doing science, and scientists who are producing images are not doing art.

“In my lab I talk about the integrity of disciplines; both the methodology and context in which the work is being developed are what make its meaning and the ways in which it is being read.

“There is a growing confusion already between science and engineering. Many engineers claim to be scientists. So throwing art into the mix might confuse things even farther. It sometimes seems that co-opting art into the mix is part of a larger project of attempting to silence and defuse critical thinking that might harm the ‘business as usual’ mindset.”

Despite being represented in collections around the world, Catts’ work is biological and therefore inherently time-limited. Biological tissues rot, but he isn’t concerned in the least that his art will eventually turn to dust (or slime).

He recounts a recent collaboration with Japanese artist and scientist Hideo Iwasaki, an expert on cyanobacteria. Working in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia, the pair collaborated on a project looking at “the idea of time as an instrument of humility”.

“When you think about deep time and geological timeframes, the question of art lasting becomes completely irrelevant,” Catts says. “Very little, if any, of human intentional activity would remain; all we do is transient.”

Mary Shelley, if not Dr Frankenstein himself, would surely have approved.

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