The origin of art is human. Ever since the Venus of Willendorf was sculpted in limestone 25,000 years ago, people have struggled to craft the human form in materials from clay to marble to silicone. But while there have been some popular hits such as Michelangelo’s David, none have shown the subtlety to be seen in the living body. In our scientifically advanced society, the optimal way to create a portrait is to clone the human subject.
Conventional genetic cloning is technically problematic, but only because aspiring cloners have been burdened with antiquated genetic concepts. In recent years, biologists have learned that the genes you inherit do not determine who you become. What matters is which genes are expressed, and gene expression depends on your environment. Epigenetics takes into account environmental factors including diet, stress, and exposure to toxins. By evaluating these factors and replicating them, Jonathon Keats is pioneering the field of epigenetic cloning.
In five pilot studies at the AC Institute, Keats is epigenetically cloning five celebrities. His subjects are some of the most popular people alive, and some of the most widely emulated, including Lady Gaga, Michael Phelps and Barack Obama. He has metabolically analyzed each by assessing their gross biochemical intake, and is methodically exposing large populations of living cells to similar chemical formulae, systematically activating epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation. While the cells are not human, they are known to be genetically similar to Homo sapiens, and have been used as model organisms in the world’s leading laboratories. Keats is epigenetically cloning Obama, Phelps and Gaga in Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as brewer’s yeast.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae is popular in laboratories because of its rapid lifecycle. Over the course of a month at the AC Institute, yeast cells should begin taking on epigenetic traits of the five target celebrities. In anticipation of this simultaneous breakthrough in science and art, Keats is developing techniques for human-to-human epigenetic cloning. Through interventions such as systematic alteration of diet, concentrated exposure to select pollutants, and electrical stimulation of emotional crises, people will be able to become the epigenetic clones of admired figures, both living and deceased, from Jennifer Lopez to King David.
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About the Artist
Jonathon Keats is an experimental philosopher, artist and writer. Exhibited at venues including the Berkeley Art Museum, the Wellcome Collection, and the AC Institute, his projects have been documented by PBS, NPR, and the BBC World Service, garnering favorable attention in periodicals ranging from The New Yorker to The Economist to Nature. He is also the art critic for San Francisco Magazine, a visual arts columnist for Forbes.com, and the author of Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is represented by Modernism Gallery in San Francisco.