U of A artists take Manhattan

"It's absolutely fabulous," said a beaming Liz Ingram, U of A professor of printmaking and one of the artists in the show. "I was picturing [the exhibit] not being so popular because we're from Alberta and people might not know about it, but the turnout has been truly amazing."

The interdisciplinary exhibition, an exploration of the legal, ethical and social issues around stem-cell research through the eyes of U of A and other internationally known artists, officially opened Nov. 10 at the Chelsea Art Museum in mid-town Manhattan after a successful run at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary last winter.

It seems the word got out. The New York show attracted a crowd of some 200-300 from the arts and science communities, and several editors from news services such as Reuters and Bloomberg news. Stephen Change, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Network, participated in a panel discussion

Editors from Science and Scientific America are also scheduled to attend later this week. Overall, response has been so strong that the Chelsea has extended the show one week beyond its 10-day run, to wrap up on Nov. 26.

Originally conceived by Sean Caulfield, U of A professor of printmaking, and his brother Tim, research director of the U of A's Health Law and Science Policy Group, the project aims to bring scientists and visual artists together to broaden discussion around complex topics involving biotechnology. The aim, say the contributors, is not to take positions on either side of what can often be a divisive debate, but rather to provoke thought and inspire questions.

"Biomedical research, especially stem-cell research, tends to be very emotional," says Sean Caulfield. "People have this polarized reaction to it. If we had one broad objective, it would be to see how art might bring a more sophisticated dialogue to the debate, because art tends to be able to articulate emotional and psychological things much more effectively. And I think it can bring people together."

The show was partly supported by Canada's Stem Cell Network, the first time it has funded a group including artists.

"One of the areas where the stem-cell network felt there was a strong need was in understanding issues around stem-cell research," said Lisa Willemse, director of communications for the network. "This presents the essence of biotechnology to the public in a very different way, to think about science and how it impacts their lives."

The various pieces examine biotechnology through a range of media including printmaking, photography, sculpture and video. One interactive installation by Ingram and Bernd Hildebrandt, called Differentiating Faith, invites participants to walk in to a tent-like structure that presents the illusion of being suspended in the human body. Another multimedia piece by U of A artist Daniela Schlüter incorporates drawings of her own chromosomes, which she commissioned from a laboratory.

In addition to Caulfield, Ingram and Hildebrandt, other contributing artists include Derek Besant of the Alberta College of Art and Design, Shona Macdonald of the University of Masschusetts Amherst, Royden Mills of the U of A, independent artist Mariléne Oliver and Clint Wilson of the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Showing at the Chelsea Art Museum, a world stage for art that presents "contemporary thematic exhibitions that foster critical thinking about today's world," was a coup for this group of artists. The space was secured and paid for the University of Alberta International.

After its Chelsea run, the show moves on to the McMaster Art Gallery at McMaster University in Hamilton. Negotiations are now underway to also bring the show to Enterprise Square in Edmonton.

As for Josh Groban's reaction, "I can't say I understand it all, but it's beautiful, and it makes you think." And that, say the artists, is the whole point.