Nature Isn’t What It Used To Be
The Farm portrays Alexis Rockman’s favorite theme. “The way I constructed it is that, as in a lot of Western culture, we read things from left to right,” he explained in an interview. “On the left side of the image are the ancestral species of the chicken, the pig, the cow, and the mouse;” On the right, their contemporary versions. Farther to the right are “permutations of what things might look like in the future.” The transition from wild cow and boar to familiar barnyard beasts to grotesque technologically engineered models is precise and tactical, and the animals still maintain some original species characteristics. A fruit fly, a strand of DNA, an overmanipulated dog inside a prize-winning blue rosette compete for attention with the cocks placed conspicuously on the fence, straddling the horizon. Tomatoes created to fit the shipping crate, loaf-shaped watermelons, and multicolor corn complete the picture, occupying several layers of time and genetic activity in the permissive context the artist calls “democratic space.”
Rockman’s vision of biotechnology is riddled with clues and inside jokes rooted in economic, social, ethical, and other concerns. It’s a vision he wants to popularize, “It has to be decipherable to a six-year-old child. I try to construct it as an onion with different layers of meaning and iconography.” The Farm succeeds in this regard, perhaps even beyond the artist’s intentions. This icon of biotechnology is also the stage for foodborne disease emergence. The soybean farm is much too close to the farm animals, whose fertile waste deposits seep into the nearby water used to irrigate the plants. The fence is useless for keeping out rodents or birds and their microbial deposits. And human manipulation, intended to make larger more efficient food animals, may have unintended consequences. If the DNA strands were animated, they would be turning wildly.