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The G-Nome Project

Who Am I? Exhibition

Published onAug 24, 2020
The G-Nome Project

Study for G-Nome, 1989
Andrew Leicester (British – American, b. 1948)
David Dahlquist (American, b. 1958)
Pencil and red pencil on paper
Gift of David Buell Dahlquist and Cheryl Y. Dahlquist. In the Art on Campus Preparatory Studies and Maquettes Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Study for G-Nome, 1989
Andrew Leicester (British – American, b. 1948)
David Dahlquist (American, b. 1958)
Pencil and red pencil on paper
Gift of David Buell Dahlquist and Cheryl Y. Dahlquist. In the Art on Campus Preparatory Studies and Maquettes Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Study for Forbidden Fruit, 1989
Andrew Leicester (British – American, b. 1948)
David Dahlquist (American, b. 1958)
Red and green crayon, ink, and pencil on paper
Gift of David Buell Dahlquist and Cheryl Y. Dahlquist. In the Art on Campus Preparatory Studies and Maquettes Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Artist’s Interpretation

The G-Nome Project began in 1986 with research, design development followed by input with the Molecular Biology Public Art Committee.  This committee informed the science, as well as shared the vision of genetic engineering, outlining cautionary notes of this influential science and its potential power to change the course of human and planetary development. In March 1991, the project was complete with 58 individual works of public art located inside and outside of the Molecular Biology Building.  Quite simply, G-Nome Project explores the art, science and ethics of genetic engineering. The G-Nome Project is laced with a sense of ambiguity-as the stories are open to ambiguity allowing for many interpretations. This public art project has stood the test of time by engaging generations of students from the early 1990s to today, faculty and the public in serious discussions leading to understanding while integrating genetics into daily life.  These three-decades have been a tremendous and tumultuous journey for the science community and the public by forcing us to reconsider our values, not to mention our ethics, in the service of science as perceived through the humanistic lens of fine art.  The G-Nome Project engages our minds and emotions in expressing the intersecting and dissecting impacts of genetic advancements.  Layers of meaning and interpretations will continue to be added to the G-Nome Project as we tackle the limits of science and art.

Andrew Leicester, 2020

Interpretation 1

Though based in Minneapolis today, the sculptor Andrew Leicester was born and educated in England, and inherited a fondness for folklore and fairy tales which we associate with many of the inventive minds among our British cousins, most notably J. R. R. Tolkien and J. M. Barrie. It is good to recall that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, spent many years trying to prove the existence of fairies, fooled by fake photographs taken by a couple of children in their garden in Yorkshire. Not surprisingly, then, when Leicester was commissioned to design the sculptural decorations for Iowa State's new Molecular Biology Building in 1990, he fell back on ancient mythology and medieval folktales for his inspiration. From the Sphinx above the South Entrance to the Snake Goddess, Forbidden Fruit, that dominates the atrium, Leicester's sculptures offer us whimsical adaptations from mythology and superstition, but here are charged with messages inviting us to reflect on the purpose and morality of the scientific activities that take place in this building. 

Originally made of glazed terracotta when first created in 1992, the four 12-foot high G-Nomes were replaced recently with exact duplicates in painted aluminum, a material better suited for surviving many more Iowa winters. Perched high on the corners of the roof like the sentries of a medieval fortress, they remind us that an important function of artworks in earlier ages was protective: the lions carved above city gates, the gorgons on the facades of Greek temples, the gargoyles of Gothic cathedrals, were expected to scare away evil spirits, and warn visitors to approach these sacred places with caution and a reverent frame of mind. This kind of art is described as apotropaic by anthropologists, meaning "keeping evil away," and I would wager that at least some of my scientific and educated readers carry apotropaic amulets, like a rabbit's foot, a lucky coin, or a horn made of coral, to protect them from the "evil eye" and other misfortunes.

The G-Nomes resemble a cross between mechanical robots and medieval knights in armor, creatures of the fantastic future and the fabled past at the same time. Decorated with striped and checkered patterns of black and white, they symbolize the mixing of science (white lab coat) and business (black suit) that makes genetic engineering possible and profitable. The objects they hold are not weapons, but rods representing the X and Y chromosomes which make up the genetic code in all living cells. The title G-Nome of course refers to the genome, the collection of genes inherited by every creature from its parents, but also brings to mind the gnomes, mythical guardians of hidden treasure. Is it purely a coincidence that not far from the Molecular Biology Building, at Reiman Gardens, we can find the world's largest concrete garden gnome? Elwood by name, and armed with a spade and bundle of flowers, he protects the azaleas and tulips surrounding him, products of the old-fashioned sort of genetic engineering conducted by countless generations of gardeners.

Dr. John Cunnally
Professor, Art History, Art and Visual Culture

Interpretation 2

Rubber-clad arms extend from the back of Molecular Biology surrounded by a cryptic message, warning “Human beings are not yet wise enough to direct the course of evolution.” Surprising décor for a building devoted to research in biotechnology and molecular biology: these walls house laboratories where scientists and students use new techniques to manipulate and edit the structure of DNA, pursuing exactly the kind of science they are artistically warned against every time they enter!

In the atrium stands an altar to a terrifying goddess, holding in her outstretched hands the shards of a strand of DNA she has ripped apart. Ringed with fire, her eyes imply a terrifying threat. Will she hurl the broken strands like lightning bolts, to punish those who transgress? Is she mad, lost in the ecstasy of scientific discovery, transgressing boundaries of knowledge? This entire building is a paradox: designed to facilitate crucial research, it cautions against the very research undertaken.

What does it mean, this warning against ‘directing the course of evolution?’ In one sense, we direct the course of evolution every time we feed a pet, select a mate, plant a seed, or get a vaccine. But many share a sense that biotechnology is different, dangerous, that our environmental impact is excessive, that this work serves the interests of corporations at the expense of the public, and that we engage this science at our peril. The atrium goddess, Forbidden Fruit, inspires fear.

It is not my place to allay this fear. But the building is not simply a terrifying injunction to avoid scary science, it is also primarily a place where people pursue science: they develop crop varieties that may help to make agriculture sustainable and promote environmental recovery; they develop vaccines that may save lives and mitigate misery; they pursue pure research that increases our understanding of the world we share with every other living thing we have ever known, and with billions upon billions of lives still unknown.

I celebrate the intelligent careful work done in this building. Science has always held both threat and promise, but we cannot do without it. We need scientific research more than ever in a world that confronts us with a changing climate, floods and drought, pandemic disease that can bring our activities to a halt, with growing human populations and shrinking damaged ecosystems.

The human predicament means, and justice requires, that we find ways to meet our needs without compromising the future needs of our descendants. It is crucial to exercise caution, avoid imposing risks, and to ensure that the benefits of public research are not shunted towards corporate funders at the expense of the public. But we cannot survive the challenges of our times without good science, advancing knowledge, and new technology. We need all the intelligence and all the curiosity that drives the work that takes place in this building.


Perhaps it is not a bad thing to have these goals pursued beneath the cautionary glare of the Goddess.

Dr. Clark Wolf
Professor and Director, Bioethics Program, Philosophy

Interpretation 3

Forbidden Fruit has presided over the airy atrium of the Molecular Biology Building since 1992.

In the summer of 1998, when I first saw Forbidden Fruit, I was a Minnesotan middle school student visiting ISU for a residential “nerd camp;” the course I chose was Genetics, so every day our little troupe would walk from Friley Hall to the Molecular Biology Building to learn about things like DNA replication, transcription, and translation. When my parents came to pick me up after three weeks and toured the building, I remember enthusiastically pointing out the tiled floor depicting a messily exuberant cell; the ceramic chimeras, eerily odd and columned up to the glass ceiling as if ascending to some designer-gene heaven; the gloved, disembodied hands thrust out among code, warning us not to unwisely meddle with nature’s deeper switches. I was smitten with this complex art and with the whole concept of looking smaller to understand larger patterns.

Forbidden Fruit is not my favorite examples of Leicester’s art in this grand collection, but it is the most personally meaningful. I still have the photo my parents took of me standing next to Forbidden Fruit in 1998; little did I know that nine years later I’d be celebrating my graduation, with ISU degrees in Biochemistry and Genetics, in the same atrium – an atrium where a new piece of art had been added: a portrait of my late former fiancé, Robert John Stupka III, who was hit by a bus just outside Molecular Biology Building in the middle of finals and died the next morning. 

Rob and I met as chem-lab partners and soon simultaneously switched majors to Biochemistry, where he dove into research and connecting others. He was President of the BBMB undergraduate club, and at the time of his death, we’d been planning his brainchild: a symposium to showcase undergrads’ research and bridge the gap between undergrads, graduate students, and professors. The symposium, now named after him, has occurred every spring for 14 years, pausing only for 2020’s pandemic. Every spring, all stripes of science folk gather in MBB’s atrium to commingle, share research, and infect each other (in the best possible way) with enthusiasm for the wonder and possibilities of science—all under the gaze of Forbidden Fruit.

In the months after Rob’s death, friends gathered in the main MBB hall to watch films and sci-fi shows; being together in the building he’d last left felt like the closest way to heal. We strung a necklace of Peachy-O’s—one of Rob’s favorite candies—onto Ms. “Forbidden Fruit,” and I’d tear one off and think of Rob each time I passed her by. In addition to each year’s symposium, she’s overseen BBMB-club events like pumpkin carving, cookie-decorating, and poker nights (no betting, of course!); department-wide Thanksgiving meals (where she was dressed like a pilgrim); and bustling graduation receptions (where she, too, wore cap and gown).

I haven’t touched on the symbolism of Forbidden Fruit or the Minoan snake-goddess figures that inspired it; for me, the statue is something else entirely. Her ever-abiding presence and steely, somehow comforting stare will always take me back to happy days of community, wonder, and collaboration for something bigger than ourselves.

Claire Kruesel
Assistant Teaching Professor, English


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