Science and the visual arts


  • Leslie Forbes

Sian Ede. Strange and charmed: science and the contemporary visual arts Ed. by 200 pages. London, UK : Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation , 2000 . £10.99 p/b . ISBN 090 3319 87X

One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, as the song, goes. And like the anonymous figures in the lithograph Relativity by Maurits Escher (who studied mathematics and physics), art and science often appear to occupy different spatial worlds, with opposing concepts of what is horizontal and what is vertical. Why then should artists and scientists even attempt to enter each other’s disparate forms of reality? This and other topical questions are explored in Strange and charmed, which sets out the advantages gained in such mixed marriages and, most controversially, asks if the logical, objective method associated with science might – occasionally, just possibly, perhaps – be less productive in some scientific investigations than an anarchic, subjective ‘artistic’ approach.

Artists transgressing the boundaries between art and science can be beset by problems, the author A. S. Byatt explains in her preface. Working in such materials as optic fibres and radioactive isotopes, they – and we – can find it hard to recognize that their art is art, especially in a world already filled with brilliantly crafted technological visions. Siân Ede, Arts Director at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, who has written approximately half this book, concurs, as does Richard Bright, founder and Director of Bristol’s Interalia Centre, one of six other contributors. Cautioning artists against too easy ‘metaphysical’ interpretations of complex scientific theories, he then reminds scientists of their own need to visualize complicated phenomena. Profound scientific thought, while unfathomable to most artists, may inspire art that is equally as profound yet mysterious to scientists, he says, echoing Ken Arnold, Exhibitions Manager at the Wellcome Trust. Arnold too examines the influence of scientific imagery on contemporary artists, and warns scientists against expecting the art in an art–science collaboration to be merely illustrative.

So far, Strange and charmed seems more like a textbook of cautionary tales: abandon hope all ye who enter here. Why bother? One inadmissable, three-letter motive bubbles under the book’s austere crust of academia: fun. Collaboration can be a gulp of icy vodka to the theoretical digestion. Artists and scientists can play together like kids presented with new toys – and out of playfulness may come insight, Siân Ede hints. Her fellow contributors offer scores of successful partnerships: geneticists at IGER Aberystwyth helped ‘grass’ artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey to dip a metaphorical paintbrush in chlorophyll ( Fig. 1); biodynamicists at Imperial College, London tried out zero gravity for a dance partner with choreographer Kitsou Dubois, who went on to assist the French Space Agency in developing dance-based protocols for astronauts training in parabolic flight; theoretical physicists Chris Isham and Konstantina Savvidou at Imperial College were amazed by artist John Latham’s concept of time as a continuing roller blind in which the past repeatedly returns to the future. They recognized in the artist’s work a precursor of their idea of ‘consistent histories’, and so discovered a new way to visualize their own approach to quantum theory.

Figure 1.

Mother and child: photographic photosynthesis in Stay-green grass. Courtesy of H. Ackroyd and D. Harvey.

As technological media spew out mountains of data, this ability of artists to imagine ‘offscreen’, beyond the perspectival view, becomes ever more useful. ‘We mustn’t forget that it is precisely the use of symbolic intuition to uncover genuine patterns of resemblance that leads scientists to their greatest endeavours,’ Richard Dawkins has said. Expanding on Dawkins, Martin Kemp, Professor of the History of Art at Oxford University, and Deborah Scultz from Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design, London, discuss the subversion of orthodox taxonomic principles by artists whose subjective reclassification systems are scientifically interesting as well as controversial. Siân Ede describes the exquisite watercolours of badly mutated bugs collected down-wind of nuclear power stations, a response by zoological illustrator Cornelia Hesse-Honegger to the Chernobyl disaster. This Swiss artist was reviled by the orthodox scientific community for her failure to supply accompanying statistics showing that mutations are normal in nature. Her response? That she was working alone; if the scientific community wanted to prove her wrong, they could do so with a big, properly resourced study.

It is nonsense to believe that artists are always random and subjective in their experimentation while scientists remain methodical and objective. Look no further, writes Mike Page of Cambridge University’s Brain Sciences Unit, than Alexander Fleming, ‘propelled in an entirely new direction by the witnessing of a chance encounter of mould and bacterial culture’. And Seattle-born sculptor James Acord hardly fits the frivolous ‘artistic’ stereotype. He took a Master’s in nuclear engineering just so that he could be licensed to ‘sculpt’ with high-level radioactive waste, which he encloses in wall-mounted granite bas-reliefs – not as an answer to the problem, he insists, but as ‘a symbol and a metaphor for the fact that we do have control. We have created these elements. We can uncreate them.’

Repetitive in places, this book remains to the end, like the quirky quark from which the title is taken, strangely charming. It proves that art can encourage scientists to use unexplored methodology and to present answers in a way that is less threatening to a wary public. Art can also, of course, suggest (to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller) that if scientists don’t watch out where they’re going, we may wind up where they’re headed.

The reviewer

Since studying physics and political science at university in Canada, Leslie Forbes has worked for the last 20 years in London as a writer, artist and broadcaster. She is the author of four award-winning travel and food books and the presenter of many BBC radio series, including Radio 3’s long-running Table Talk (for which she won a Silver Sony). Her first novel, the bestselling Bombay Ice, married chaos theory with Shakespeare’s Tempest in Bollywood. Her second, Fish, Blood & Bone, just published, concerns the nature of the colour green.