Cloning human beings has fascinated artists for dozens of years. Already in 1932 Aldous Huxley published his classical novel Brave New World which deals with this issue. In Benjamin W. Bova’s The Multiple Man, published in 1976, several completely identical bodies of ….. the president of the United States are found. In that same year, Ira Levin’s famous novel The Boys from Brazil, on which the famous film was based, was published too, comprising of scenes that depict the reduplication of Adolph Hitler by neo-Nazies. Years later, in 1993, Stephen Spielberg’s film Jurassic Park portrayed the revival of dinosaurs which was made possible by implanting their genetic material into frogs’ ova.
In literary fantasies, such as The Boys from Brazil and Jurassic Park, the cloning technique was based on the notion that one can take an ovum, destroy the information in it, and replace it with genetic information taken from a cell belonging to a different animal or a grown person.
Today this technique is no longer a mere fictional fantasy concocted by cinema and literature creators. The successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997 brought up the possibility of cloning humans. In 1999 a human embryo was grown in a laboratory dish. This embryo was produced, from tip to toe, in an American company’s biotechnological laboratory which has taken on the challenge of devising a technology whereby human “spare parts” could eventually be grown. This explicit goal is to make the embryo cells evolve into a perfect organ, any organ: a liver, a lung, a bone or even a brain, which would be implantable in a human body. In this way, theoretically, we can also let the embryo evolve into a whole baby – strictly a test tube product.
Looking ahead, human cloning should give rise to huge developments in fundamental and applicable studies of the processes of life, renewal of growth in injured tissues, control over cancer cells’ reproduction and more. Such cloning, however, would entail experimentation in humans, which evokes concerns regarding possible mishaps during those experiments, which can cause severe suffering to subjects and tremendous social changes: deterioration of current moral restrictions, and the resurfacing of Eugenics – the abuse of this knowledge by sinister totalitarian regimes. Aside from these scenarios, problem are bound to arise, questions such as the cloned person’s legal status, or possible abatement of their status due to society’s expectation of them to accurately mimic the behavior of their originator.
Bell Shafir does not pose any judgmental stand inclined this way or another with regard to cloning in the works she displays in this exhibition. In her studio-lab she is the “hailed victor” and she is one entrusted, as a modern day scientist, with the meticulous artistic craft of cloning and intervention in processes of humans coming into being.
In this craft Shafir incorporates laboratory utensils such as syringes, plastic tubules, glass test tubes, Petri dishes, substrates, and marking tags, along with pieces of tissue or embryos in early stages of development she “constructs” from plastered bandages, skeins of cotton and hair, golden threads, gold and silver laminas, shiny stones and pearls. Out of these amorphic embryonic figures, legs and arms emerge, an implied shape of a human body or strings of recombinant DNA. These gentle objects are put on display like some rare jewelry inside well lit and locked up glass-front cabinets.
Next to the three dimensional pieces, Bell draws embryonic figures in ink on hundreds of identification tags whose laces she braided to infinite strings. Besides drawing the figures on the tags, Bell draws them, almost ritually, on dozens of thick album pages or pieces of paper which she glues onto plywood slates.
Should the cloning in Shafir’s laboratory go sour, and a two headed or deformed embryonic mutation is “conceived”, Bell Shafir then wraps it with thousands of bright pearl shaded sequins as she slowly and painstakingly glues them on, or she would plate her coned “creation” with glittering snippets of gold leafs, so as to dispel the initial fear from the distorted outcome by means of this glamorous exterior. In this sense the artist’s works seem seductive at first, attesting to her occupation with sparkling clean jewelry craftsmanship. But looking closer, these jewels turn out to be made of fake artificial materials, and the more we reexamine them, the better we perceive the artist’s deliberate act of deceit which induces repulsion and anxiety in us, an act that perfectly correlates to the technical act of cloning performed in biotechnological laboratories where whole series of manmade reproductions are made.
It is said that the Greek mathematician, physicist and inventor Archimedes, who was also one of the forefathers of the fields of engineering, contested: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.”
It seems that Bell Shafir, aware like many of us of the dramatic developments in the field of genetic engineering, heredity and cloning, has found that turning point in the portrait of our world and in our view of the living creatures in it, a fulcrum that managed to unsettle her as it does us all.