Painting with Algae and Smelling Dirt


“Artistic expression via DNA”. The title of the workshop immediately piqued both the artist and biologist in me. The UCLA Broad Center was hosting a series of workshops centered on individual chapters of Linda Weintrub’s book What’s Next? Eco-Materialism in Contemporary Art, and each chapter featured a different artist.

In the first workshop, all participants sat in a full circle and listened to artist Wenda Gu, famous for his use of human hair as an artistic medium, explain the meaning and ideas behind his work. Hair, he explained, is universal to humans yet different from one person to the next. It represents both our diversity and similarity with one another. He would collect leftover hair from barber shops across the world and weave them into sculptures, bringing the world together in a fascinating way.

Image result for wenda guSaatchi Gallery, London – Country flags made with human hair (Wenda Gu)

We tried a much smaller-scale version of this in the workshop by each plucking a single strand of hair from our head and one by one, walking to the middle of the circle while calling out our ‘genetic contribution’ and dropping our hair onto a piece of white paper. “Female, Korean,” I offered, and let my hair fall into the small pile with the rest. The pile was barely visible, but meant more in that moment than any other pile of hair had meant to me in my life. Aside from the one I had thought was a spider in the middle of the night.

In the second part of the workshop, each person wrote down the first thing they thought of when hearing the word “secretion”, using green dye made of algae. The process made me realize the negativity we seem to hold for hair and secretions. It’s hard to deny the initial shudder I experienced when I envisioned Wenda’s towering Frankenstein-esque creations of hair. Where do we get this inherent aversion for the things our bodies produce? Maybe it’s evolutionary. It was probably best that our ancestors avoided certain bodily fluids, being such good vectors for bacteria and viruses. But hair? I can’t imagine there being enough of an evolutionary drive to select for a trait that makes us averse to hair that isn’t on our head.

But perhaps the one secretion that makes us the most squeamish is the ever so infamous period blood. Women whisper about it to each other like a shameful secret. We pass pads and tampons to each other like back-alley drug dealers. Pad commercials use a blue representative dye instead of red so it does NOT look like blood, which is the one thing it should look like. I’d like to change that stigma. Might as well start today.

So what do I write for my word?

Multipurpose. Yes, there are all sorts of things our body produces, oozes, and bleeds! Blood, sweat, tears, urine, mucus, and more! Even more important is that they each serve an indispensable purpose. Our blood keeps our cells oxygenated, sweat keeps us cool, urine secretes the things we don’t need, and mucus traps harmful bacteria. Each one is beautiful in its function. Next time a frat bro spits a wad of spit into the cement, instead of shaking your head in disdain, clap him on the back and congratulate him. “Your body just did a wonderful thing, my friend.”



The second workshop was presented by Laura Parker. Before us, in the manner of an elegant dinner party, was a table draped with white cloth and an arrangement of wine glasses filled with… dirt. Dirt from all types of terrains, from the sandy loams of Oaji to the well-drained soils of Malibu.

Each participant got a wine glass filled with dirt. I held my glass by the stem and swirled it with some water. “Smell the dirt! Try to see if you can smell the different between the types of dirt!” I clinked wine glasses with my neighbor and stuck my nose straight into my glass. It smelled suspiciously of dirt and… dare I say it, dirt. But with a few more sniffs, I could catch a faint whiff of salt. Perhaps soil near the sea?

Next we ate the vegetables grown from these soils and tried to taste what we smelled. I have to say, my judgment was significantly impaired by the fact that I had never tried these vegetables before. Chard was a new experience for me. The stem was salty. Was it the same saltiness I smelled from the dirt? Or is chard supposed to be salty. The leaves became a nice reprieve from the salt, but soon became reservoirs of bitterness on my taste buds.

Though this workshop was largely impeded by my lack of vegetable knowledge and less than sensitive nose, I still found it very interesting to consider the impact environment has on the food we grow.