Oron Catts, director of SymbioticA

The designer was growing a mice stem cell coat — a kind of new leather, when things went wrong…..

Museum Kills Live Exhibit

Art is deathless, the poets say. Unless it isn’t.

One of the strangest exhibits at the opening of “Design and the Elastic Mind,” the very strange show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that explores the territory where design meets science, was a teeny coat made out of living mouse stem cells. The “victimless leather” was kept alive in an incubator with nutrients, unsettlingly alive. Until recently, that is.

Photo

Credit Ionat Zurrs

Paola Antonelli, a senior curator at the museum, had to kill the coat. “It was growing too much,” she said in an interview from a conference in Belgrade. The cells were multiplying so fast that the incubator was beginning to clog. Also, a sleeve was falling off. So after checking with the coat’s creators, a group known as SymbioticA, at the School of Anatomy & Human Biology at the University of Western Australia in Perth, she had the nutrients to the cells stopped.

Though she has said “I felt cruel when I turned it off,” Ms. Antonelli said in the more recent interview that it was, essentially, a simple decision tinged with a bit of regret. “It was the only piece in the show that was alive,” she said. “It really was an amazing piece.”

Oron Catts, director of SymbioticA, said in an e-mail interview that he “particularly liked what happened at the MoMA,” with its slightly Frankensteinian sensibility of “life growing out of control.” The need to shut the exhibit fit in with the group’s overarching goal “to present the end of our projects in ways that remind people that these works are/were alive and that we have a responsibility towards the living systems that we engage in manipulating,” he wrote. Besides, he added, “the piece was able to regain some of its irony that was lost” when it was put in the context of what he characterized as an “optimistic design show.”

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