The most intimate self portrait

Nguyễn Thế Long

Senior Member
The most intimate self portrait
Artists dive inside the body to expose its secret elements

[Published 16th March 2007 02:07 PM GMT]

Three adjacent walls display black and white videos of moonscape panoramas, each moving at a different pace as the cameras scan the other-worldly terrain. Huge boulders, deep crevasses, and spikes jutting like cacti from sand dunes come into relief and slide back into shadow. Standing in the dark, surrounded on three sides by these projections, one gets the sense of floating slowly over the surface of Titan.

"I think that might be the inside of her mouth," guesses Laura Addison, the curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. The videos, she explains, are actually scanning electron microscopic (SEM) images of artist Justine Cooper's mouth, skin, and hair. Behind Addison is a bust composed of slides from an MRI scan; around the corner, a photograph of an artist's giant sperm hangs on the wall.

The collection is part of an exhibition at the museum called the Art and Artifice of Science, running through May 18. Many of the installations blur the line between fiction and reality, where hair seen close-up becomes a Martian mountain range, and skin an alien desert. While self portraiture has a long history in art, medical and scientific imaging have opened up a new world of ways for artists to capture the art of their bodies. One of the earliest examples of this type of self-portrait is Robert Rauschenberg's Booster from 1967, in which he used his own x-rays to construct a disjointed skeletal collage.

"In the laboratory you can explore the most private things," says artist Gary Schneider, producer of the sperm. Opposite 74 by 79 cm photographs of his retinas -- more resembling the moon rising above a stand of aspens than the arborizing blood vessels of the eye -- are images of Schneider's gut fauna and X and Y chromosomes. In the 1990s Schneider decided to embark on a genetic self portrait, examining the parts of him that do not appear in the mirror. He started with images of his chromosomes, having paired up with Dorothy Warburton, a professor in clinical genetics and development at Columbia University. Using a standard 35 mm Zeiss camera attached to a microscope, Schneider was able to capture his DNA. "I wanted to see my biology," Schneider says.

For Schneider the project was about more than just self- examination-- it was also about the love of discovery. "Each time I interfaced with [scientists]," Schneider says, they exhibited an "extraordinary expression of awe at the beauty of these specimens and this biology, and it's the same experience I'm looking for." Cooper agrees that working with scientists enhanced the project, especially her SEM work at the Australian Key Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis. "If I was looking at something in the microscope, say a pubic hair, and a group of scientists walked in, instead of them walking away they would come over and contribute their specialized knowledge about what I was looking at."

Now a Brooklyn resident, Cooper says it was easier to collaborate with scientists on art projects in Australia than in the States. For her Rapt project, which involved full body MRI scans, Cooper approached a private laboratory in Sydney and they happily helped her without charging for the scan. "I don't think I could have convinced anyone in the States to do that," Cooper says.

The result is two installations (only one appears in Santa Fe) of film on plexiglass plates, spaced apart to give the illusion of a body. Cooper says she enjoys the myriad ways people interpret her art. To some, the still, dark figures from the MRI film seem dead and spooky, while some find it exciting, like a science fiction movie. "Others look at it diagnostically, like oh, she's got a bunion on her left foot," Cooper laughs. "You can guess who they are!"

Images: Justine Cooper Scynescape, 2000/2006, Scanning electron microscopy animations (Dimensions variable), Incisor, courtesy of the artist; Gary Schneider, Family Portrait, Genetic Self-Portrait series, 1997 (80" wide); Gary Schneider Retinas, Genetic Self-Portrait series, 1997 (67" wide).

Kerry Grens

Links within this article

Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe

M. Paterlini, "Artist focuses lens on viruses," The Scientist, January 26, 2007.

Justine Cooper

M. Wenner, "Animals as art," The Scientist, February 23, 2007.

Robert Rauschenberg

Gary Schneider

Dorothy Warburton

S. Pincock, "MRI researchers warn against new EU legislation," The Scientist, October 10, 2005.


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