The Ways of Nature

SF Journal North
By Kim Russo
September 5, 2008

The popularity of organic produce is due, in part, to the rise of genetically modified (GMO) foods over the past decade. In a country like the United States, where labeling of GMO foods is not required, it is likely that all but the most diligent organic consumers in America are buying and swallowing GMO products every day.

Genetic engineering has allowed scientists to create plants that produce human insulin and soybeans that won’t die even when drenched in Roundup. Charles Amtzen at Cornell University is working on “edible vaccines” placed genetically inside of bananas.

In early 2004, the first genetically modified pet, a tropical fish that glows under ultraviolet light, was available to consumers. According to Jeremy Rifkin, president of The Foundation on Economic Trends, “GMO technologies allow scientists to bypass biological boundaries altogether. You can take a gene from any species — plant, animal, or human — and place it into the genetic code of your food crop.”

The goal of all of this bioengineering is to create a food utopia — a world where there is no hunger, crop pests, or scarcity of medicine. And this sounds ideal. But it’s still unclear whether the final outcome will be good or bad for the planet. One thing is for sure: Right now, humans are reorganizing nature.

And this is exactly what Ming Fay is doing in his sculptures and installations: reshaping the natural world.

Walking into the stark, white rooms of Eight Modern in Santa Fe, it’s hard to miss the oversized orange, green and yellow hybrid fruits, vegetables, plants and insects. It’s a sort of produce Disneyland in a sterile hospital. Or the end-result of an elementary school art class’s collaboration with the new science teacher.

Red and green balls that look wet and pock-marked hang from spindly branches in wild groupings, sometimes along with a massive, cartoonish fly. And they move, slowly, turning in the gallery’s air currents, creating stunning negative shapes and creepy shadows.

These sculptures are most successful when hung in tangled groups, the more densely, the better. However, on one wall in the gallery, individually placed fruits, leaves and insects hang equally spaced on the wall, like specimens on a medical table. This organization permits the viewer to inspect them closely. What the heck are these things, anyway? Animal, vegetable or mineral? Simulacra or science fiction?

“Flame Plant” is an orange and yellow form, hanging solo on the wall, curved slightly to the right. Several antennae-like branches snake along its sides. It’s hard to know what this is — a plant? But which plant? Or maybe it’s an insect?

Fay’s materials are, like his ideas, hybrid combinations of the natural and artificial: paper, dye, wire, paint, polyurethane resin, and urethane foam. The urethane foam (or electrical foam) is the most recognizable material, and although it is helpful in producing the illusion of a morphing, oozing, live organism, it also looks like, well, electrical foam. After all the wonderful associations that Fay’s work elicits, it’s initially disappointing to look at and think about electrical foam. Then again, electrical foam is used to fill unwanted holes (perhaps like the holes we perceive in nature itself — the problems and inconveniences of nature — like disease, rot, imperfection, crop failure).

Ming Fay’s installations have been exhibited all over the world, including the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris and MOCA Shanghai. He has created public art projects in several East Coast cities, Oregon, and Puerto Rico.

Fay was born in Shanghai. Now in his 60s, he lives and works in New York, where he makes frequent visits to the produce markets in New York’s Chinatown for inspiration (and actual produce). The Chinese associate oranges with good luck and pears with prosperity, and these sorts of symbols, from Fay’s cultural roots, are in his work. However, Fay’s references come from the hybridization of Eastern and Western sources: from American roadside attractions to Shinto shrines to urban gardens in vacant lots — to the teachings of his two (American and Chinese) tai chi instructors.

In his show at Eight Modern, “Jungle Tango,” Fay has added small, wiry human figures to the sculptures. By adding the figures, Fay is recognizing and announcing his hand (the human hand) in all of this — this dance on the edge of biological re-construction. It isn’t an understatement that the slightly abstracted human figures can be easily missed among the Frankenstein flora. It is, instead, a very loud message.