oil on board
below) - note the role of scientific collaboration/concepts
Rockman is a painter who works on a very large scale. We are discussing
one painting, The Farm, which includes plants and animals, past, present
bold text is [emphasis added] for teaching purposes.
What was the inspiration for this impressive canvas? How did you develop
Rockman: There was a nugget of this painting sort of buried underneath
some of [my] other stuff. The real struggle for me in terms of developing
this image was that I worked with a molecular biologist at the Museum
of Natural History. [emphasis added] And I felt I had a lot
to learn before I even started it in terms of the history of genetics
and artificial selection.
How did you get started on the painting?
Rockman: It couldn't be more linear. My mom used to work at the
Museum of Natural History. I spent two years living in Peru as a child,
sort of in the margins of shantytowns. She was an archeologist doing Inca
stuff there. I grew up in New York City, but I traveled all over the world.
I started out thinking that I would be a scientist. Eventually, over
the years, I ended up becoming interested in other types of practices,
like certain genres of filmmaking, animation. I think what I ended up
doing was really a combination of all those different interests. I've
always been interested in the history of the representation of nature.
Can you talk a little bit about the structure of the picture?
Rockman: The way I constructed it is that, as in a lot of Western
culture, we read things from left to right. And the way I tried to organize
the structure, and then also break it, is that on the left side of the
image are the ancestral species of the chicken, the pig, the cow, and
the mouse, if you look carefully at the bottom. And if you go across to
the right, you see contemporary versions of the pig, cow, chicken, and
mouse. And as you go [further] to the right, you start to see permutations
of what things might look like in the future, based on artificial selection
-without losing the identity of the so-called "cowness" or "pigness,"
so that they still have some resemblance to the ancestral species that
they're coming from. And, obviously, the dog is a very clear example
of human intervention --breeding them. I felt it was a real challenge
to balance the familiar with the unfamiliar, and have it not just
be a freak show and completely alienating. Because part of my interest
is in negotiating cultural ambivalence. That's what this painting's
really about-and how nervous and confused we are about what's happening
in the biotech industry and the rest of the planet, and what that means
in terms of our own identity.
Are you at all interested in the political issue of genetic manipulation?
Rockman: How could I not be? I think that it's one of the more
interesting hot topics. I think that fears about it are kind of ludicrous.
[Genetic manipulation is] very strange, but actually very understandable
at the same time.
Well, one of the things that's interesting about your work is that there
are both genetic pasts and futures coexisting on the same plane
Rockman: Right. It's a type of democratic space.
You appear to be almost value-neutral.
Rockman: I try to be, absolutely. Listen, no one's value-neutral.
The most interesting place for me to be, for myself, is to be honest
about my ambivalence. Painting is, I think, viewed culturally as
rather self-indulgent, especially if you're dealing with pictorial iconography.
Do you have any sense of your aesthetic antecedents?
Rockman: I've looked at everyone that I could get my hands on.
I sort of [see myself] on a collision with [the art ] of people like Charles
R. Knight, who is a paleontological illustrator, and Sid Meade, who's
an industrial visionary/industrial designer who designed, amongst other
things, "Blade Runner." But he also designs airplanes. I mean,
he's very hands-on. He's as responsible as any individual for the way
our industrial world looks. In terms of the fine art world, I can't think
of anyone [like him] really. I think that that's a particularly fine-art
place to be, right?
Is that corn down low in the painting?
Rockman: Yes. Something that might resemble corn.
And at the base of the painting?
Rockman: You have a field of soy beans, squash, tomatoes, corn,
fruit fly, dog, parakeets, moths-which aren't really developed yet.
And whose DNA is that?
Rockman: I think it's human.
It's human DNA?
Rockman: Yes. But it's really meant to be just DNA. And
that's a mouse, a real mouse with human cartilage-on its back. Really,
the only thing that doesn't exist now is the chicken, the cow, and the
Right-the future ones.
Rockman: Right. And some of the vegetables. It's much more fun
for me to be able to tweak a tradition of agriculture and a tradition
of painting of agriculture.
We've come a long way from Stubbs, or somebody like that.
Rockman: Well, we have and we haven't. I actually did a lot of
research into the English domestic tradition [of animal breeding]. And
some of those cows look weirder than that cow. Well, that's the mechanized
moment, right? Where humans were seen as close to God and animals were
Have you ever studied biology?
Rockman: Not formally
Q: Are the details--well, obviously, the future of these creatures
is hypothetical. But are the details in general biologically correct?
Rockman: Oh, yes. That's the plan. They [must have] credibility.
I mean, that's the thing that sets the table in my mind. Absolutely; they're
correct as far as I know.
Or as far as people are speculating.
Rockman: Yes. I mean, listen: Some guy that's a specialist on jungle
fowl could come in and say, "That chicken is really wrong."
And I would say, "That's interesting. Why?" It's too late to
change it, but there's always someone to tell you you're wrong, right?
I went to the extent that I felt was appropriate. I looked into the origin
of chickens and jungle fowl in Southeast Asia and thought, "That
looks like the one."
Most of your work, to the degree that you're dealing with evolution, doesn't
have much about human evolution. Are you interested in the human genome
project, for example?
Rockman: My understanding of that is that it's a wonderful PR
opportunity. I think it's very interesting. But I think that so
far the most interesting things have been in the way humans have altered
their landscape. And that is human evolution, absolutely. And it's
also a different can of worms. I don't know if I want to go there.
Are you interested in the medical benefits that might come out of this?
Rockman: Oh, how could I not be? But I'm also very skeptical. I'll
believe it when I see it.
Are you a vegetarian?
Rockman: No. Are you? But I have compassion for all living things-unless
I want to eat them.
Or wear them, or whatever.
Rockman: I actually am somewhat of a vegetarian, because I'll eat
cheese and fish, but I don't eat meat or chicken. But that's not a political
position; it's more of a narcissistic position.
Do you read a lot about science that's not project related?
Rockman: It's always project related. I love travel writing, too, [but]
I love to read science.
How about science fiction?
Rockman: You know, strangely enough, I'm not that interested in
it. That's something I'd like to look into in the future. Art should [involve
itself with science fiction] more, but there tends to be a certain amount
of, shall we say, restraint-inappropriate restraint-when it comes to fine
art. I think that the most interesting stuff [in terms of science fiction]
comes more from pop culture
DNA by Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles & Marilyn Nissenson
Copyright © 2000 Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles & Marilyn Nissenson
All Rights Reserved