Summerhall once again collaborates with the Edinburgh International Science Festival on an exhibition co-curated with ASCUS Art and Science on cutting-edge art in science, this year casting a somewhat disturbing eye on the staggering advances in biotech and the use of living cells and organisms for the creation of the replacement body parts of the future.

Synthetica is something of a

mini-retrospective of the past 20-odd years of bio-art, with artistic explorations on the frontiers of science ranging from Oron Catts’ and Ionat Zurr’s Pig Wings to Marta de Menezes’ exploration of man-made genetic alterations.

Pig Wings is one of those constructed phrases that brings up all sorts of associations, from flying pigs to a slightly disturbing BBQ item called “pig wings”, a piggy version of chicken wings, but without the actual wings. The mind boggles.

Created, and in this context the term creation takes on a rather greater weight than with most artworks, by artists Catts, Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, and the SymbioticA Laboratory at the University of Western Australia in 2000, it is a nightmarish visualisation of the possible and the unthinkable in biotech.

These laboratories are the heartland of bio-engineering, working on projects such as growing skin from stem cells, growing organs for putative transplant. Such work is on the crest of the medical vanguard, but it is, of course, entering very murky territory when it comes to ethics.

If in 2000 this was something of a brave new world, 18 years later it still is.Catts and Zurr have used a method wherein pig skin cells – used in bio-engineering for their genetic proximity to humans – are grown around a synthetic scaffold.

The artists saw in this strand of science an echo of the creation of chimeras, animals that are a hybrid of two or more different animals.

The association with wings has its roots in history. When chimeric creatures were created in the imagination, in literature, in cultural myth, they came with one of two types of wings, the artists note.

Bird wings, largely associated with “good” – angels and Pegasus spring to mind, although you might think of notable exceptions include the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz – and bat-like wings for the bad – devils, dragons and so on.

The artists have co-opted a further set of wings from prehistory, those of the pterosaur, as a different sub-type. All three were then grown in the labs out of living pig cells, creating, in a sense, living wings.

It is, on the face of it, every horror notion you might have about the development of biotech. Amazement at the ease with which these things can be done, and horror at the human love for playing with nature, just because we can; of exploring what we can do, without first thinking whether we should. It also leaves you wondering at the connotations of what this means for individual species and their bodies.

While Pig Wings is the innovative early work, there is new work here, too, created with Tarsh Bates.

Crossing Kingdoms is a work in progress created during a residency at the UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology at the University of Edinburgh which explores the products of

“cross-kingdom” cell fusion in synthetic biology, working, once more, with

semi-living things which here challenge the categorisation of lifeforms.

Summerhall’s other thought-provoking exhibitions include Taiwanese artist Ting Tong Chang’s P’Eng’s Journey to the Southern Darkness, a series of lifeless crows and other birds, mounted on plinths and animated by robotic devices which move the corpses in a naturalistic manner.

Here, too, is a fascinating retrospective on the Portuguese artist de Menezes, whose work looks at man-made genetic alterations and explores the cross-point between natural and artificial. De Menezes has long used CRISPR-CAS9 gene-editing technology, allowing her to work directly with living organisms as a new art medium.

Past works include editing the genes of live butterflies to produce different wing patterns and mapping personalities in MRI scans.

Summerhall will show three works, including her work with her partner Luis Graca, which “immortalised” their partnership by mapping their respective genetic codes, held in perpetuity in adjoining but separate holders. Together, apart, forever.

Synthetica is an exhibition that will provoke many questions, from the ethics, possibilities and aims of

bio-engineering itself, to what extent the artists themselves are complicit in the science they choose to question and explore.

How far should we allow ourselves as a species to “play God”? And where might it lead? As good a chance as any to refine your thinking on the subject.

Synthetica: Edinburgh Science Festival at Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, Edinburgh, 0131 560 1580,, until 13 May, daily, 11am-6pm, free. Talks include Marta de Menezes in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, today at 4pm (£5)


Inghela Ihrman’s larger-than-life work deals

with our anthropomorphic tendencies when

dealing with animals, explores our

relationship with invasive species and how

we interact with nature. Humans being fairly

invasive themselves, this is rich territory for

Ihrman, who opened the show with a live

performance dressed as an otter giving

birth. Elsewhere, a giant hogweed invades

the space and a toad does gymnastics.

Ingela Ihrman: We Thrive; Cooper Gallery,

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and

Design, 13 Perth Road, Dundee, www., Mon-Fri,

10am-5pm, Sat, 11am-5pm, until 13 April


Above: Synthetica exhibition opening at


Left: Taiwanese artist Ting Tong Chang’s

P’Eng’s Journey to the Southern Darkness

The winningly named Shonky brings “The

Aesthetics of Awkwardness” to Dundee in a

Hayward Gallery tour guest curated by the

artist John Walter. It’s a fabulous scattergun

of “shonky” art, although the shonkiness is

in the look only. The

gallery itself is divided

into a series of colourful

conceptual spaces, with

a diverse range of artists

grouped together. The

idea, says DCA, is that

this work with its

unpolished aesthetic can

tell us something

important about a

number of things, from

gender to identity, from

notions of beauty to the

body. And it is precisely

because its visual look is

unpolished that it does it

better than other more

dominant visual forms.

The visitor can decide, of

course. Included are prints of Friedensreich

Hundertwasser’s fabulous

Hundertwasserhaus (1983-85) in Vienna,

with its wonky internal spaces and trees

growing from the inside out, and his

designs for Rogner Spa, Blumau (1993-97)

alongside the architects Arakawa and Gins’

inspiring Inflected Arcade House, with its

sloping internal floors and oddly-shaped

rooms. There is Tim Spooner’s performed

sculpture, The Voice of

Nature, which combines

poetry and sculpture in

an installation that

“appears to teeter on the

edge of collapse”;

Benedict Drew’s



installation, a cacophony

of sound and vision; and

the experimental music

making of Plastique

Fantastique’s newly

created performance


Other artists include

Walter himself, whose

“The Shonky Bar” greets

visitors as they come in.

Shonky: The Aesthetics of Awkwardness,

DCA, 152 Nethergate, Dundee, 01382 432

444,, until 27 May, daily,

10am-6pm, Thursday, until 8pm