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Art & Science: Merging Art & Science to Make a Revolutionary New Art Movement

Exhibition at GV Art Gallery, London

8 July – 24 September 2011

Click here to download exhibition e-Catalogue in PDF format

For general information about the exhibition, including the three panel discussions, see:

Merging Art & Science

Science is changing our world and our lives at an ever-increasing rate. But today artists are bringing science out of the laboratory. Nowhere is this more evident than in biology-inspired art which, by its very nature, necessitates collaboration between an artist and a scientist. This is the theme of the exhibition Merging Art & Science.

Once art and science seemed diametrically opposite; but these days some of the most innovative artists are fusing art and science to create a brand new art movement inspired by science. Striving to visualise the invisible and what it will mean to be human in the future, they create images and objects of stunning beauty, redefining the notion of ‘aesthetic’ and of what is meant by art.

Artists and scientists have always tried to fathom the reality beyond appearances, but it was really only with Isaac Newton, and the onset of the Age of Rationalism in the 17th century, that a distinction was made between the two. In the centuries that followed, science and technology were seen as the real pursuit of truth, while art — which had the role of representing people and landscape — seemed like mere entertainment. With the onset of the avant-garde, and of modernity, the two began to merge with greater and greater intensity.

Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso — inventors of the 20th century – were the catalysts. In the very first sentence of his 1905 relativity paper, Einstein wrote that physicists interpreted certain equations in ways that led to ‘asymmetries that [were] not inherent in nature’. The relativity theory was in response to his aesthetic discontents. Picasso’s 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which contains the seeds of Cubism, was strongly influenced by his interest in science (X-rays), technology (photography and cinematography) and mathematics (four-dimensional geometry).

As the century progressed, artists continued to look to breakthroughs in science for inspiration. Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 was central to Kandinsky’s creation of Abstract Expressionism; while in Nude Descending a Staircase, Duchamp reflected Einstein’s notions of movements in space and time. Relativity also influenced the Futurists, a group of dapper young Italians who rejected the static nature of Picasso’s Cubism, and evoked speed, violence and technology of modernity. Dali was inspired by relativity and then by quantum physics in his efforts to represent the passage of time. Mondrian reduced the world to lines at right angles, capturing what he saw as the dynamic nature of the cosmos in equilibrium, while Malevich concentrated on the end of the material world, as represented by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the universe will eventually run down. In Malevich’s white-on-white paintings, everything disappears.

Merging Art & Science focuses on biology-inspired art, an ancient art form. An early 20th century example, Picasso’s Standing Female Nude (1910) was inspired by the power of X-rays to glimpse beyond the visible: what you see is not what you get. In this case, the inspiration was X-ray photographs taken to diagnose the illness of Picasso’s mistress, Fernande Olivier. Superposed on a background of planes, her body lies open to reveal pelvic hip bones made up of geometrical shapes: forms reduced to geometry – the aesthetic of Cubism – inspired by modern science.

For some years, the wonders of the physical sciences enthralled artists, particularly relativity theory, with its spellbinding consequences for space and time, and quantum physics with ambiguities that shock the imagination, such as the wave and particle duality of light and matter. And then there was Jungian analysis — couched in mysterious archetypes, with more than a whiff of alchemy.

The 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, with its potential to alter life forms through genetic engineering and to cure diseases, piqued everyone?s attention. It was the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century and more accessible than relativity theory and quantum physics. Metaphors abound for making the new biology understandable and biology is, of course, of more immediate relevance than exotic objects such as black holes, supernovae and Schrödinger?s both dead and alive cat. Artists found they could work in a biological laboratory.

Biology-inspired artists have at their disposal objects that can actually be glimpsed by opening the body or using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or with microscopes. This contrasts with physics, which depends on a visual imagery generated by mathematical models to provide a glimpse of objects such as black holes, whereas observing the heavens with the naked eye reveals only tiny dots of light twinkling as if on a heavenly canopy — a quiescent scene. In biology-inspired art, the object of study can actually be altered by artists who, along with scientists, explore the boundaries between humans, animals and robots. Artists genetically engineer new forms of life, creating them in bioreactors. Their startling experiments on objects that straddle the border between living and nonliving remind us that, in the long course of our evolutionary history, we come from, and are possessed of, organisms other than human.

These days the term ‘art and science’ is on everyone?s lips – but no-one quite knows what it is or where it is going. Does it mark the rise of a new culture in which science and technology will be the driving forces and will even, perhaps, determine the future of culture? Are there similarities in the creative processes of artists and scientists? Can science benefit from art? And can considering these questions bring us any closer to understanding creativity? This exhibit is a step towards exploring these key issues of the 21st century.

The artists in this show collaborate with scientists, and the benefits run in both directions. Thus their creations have that sharp edge, the tension that accompanies creativity.

Susan Aldworth works on the border between philosophy of mind and neurophysiology. She studies the relationship of The Self to the physical brain: ‘How to define one?s personality and whether it can be physically located’. Among her tools is fMRI.

Artists explore, interpret and reinterpret forms in nature, attempting to discern forms that are successful and find out why. Davide Angheleddu describes his investigations thus: ‘My artistic production gets inspiration from nature, particularly from nature sublimely described in the book Kunstformen der Nature (Art Forms in Nature) of the German philosopher and biologist Ernst Haekel’. To investigate further the essence of natural forms he turns to sculpture using digital technologies.

Whereas work in physics-inspired art often tends to be decorative, this is less the case in biology-inspired art. Artists in the laboratory can produce works of interest to scientists. Andrew Carnie states this emphatically: ‘Art is too important to be left to artists – science too important to be left to scientists’. Carnie tracks the changing organisation of the brain, how it develops and how it is capable of holding memories.

Annie Cattrell attempts to make tangible seemingly intangible neurological experiences, such as pain and pleasure. Using what is essentially a sculptural photocopying, she examines ‘subtle shifts and rhythms which ceaselessly occur in the natural world and within the body’.

Katharine Dowson has always been inspired by how science and technology can further inform us about the hidden world within the human body, even beyond what we see in anatomy museums. Among the transparent materials she employs in conjunction with laser technology, glass plays a major role because it ‘is also a major component in scientific discovery, from test tubes to lens, revealing the microcosmic and macrocosmic universe and their visual similarities’.

David Marron has a different take on biology-inspired art. As a paramedic, he ponders the body in death resulting from violence, accident, or natural causes, sometimes in the loneliest of circumstances: ‘Each work is approached differently but a generalised underlying subject is humanity. Scratching at our fragility and durability, violence and emotion. Our habit he explains.

Helen Pynor studies flora and fauna with a unique visual language linked sometimes with text. She writes: ‘I?m fascinated by the mystery of our status as biological beings whose bodies are the repository for experience, language, and a consciousness in and beyond the central nervous system’.

Nina Sellars’ artwork utilizes drawing, photography, installation and state-of-the-art technologies. ‘In the 21st century, we have become increasingly captivated by technologies for realms that exist beyond what is normally visible,’ she writes.

For Stelarc the body is obsolete. His aim is to ‘deconstruct our evolutionary architecture and to integrate microminiaturised electronics inside the body. [The body is] an extended operational system’. He extends the concept of art onto his own body.

Ken and Julia Yonetani look to the environment for inspiration towards sculptures using ground water salt or sugar. ‘Our work tries to retrace lines of connections that have been broken or lost, particularly between acts of consumption and the environment,’ they explain.

As Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts write: ‘Wet biology art practices are engaged in manipulation of living systems. [We are] exploring the manipulation of living tissues as a medium for artistic expression’. The Pig Wings project – part of their study of the production of semi-living organisms in which they muse that if pigs could be designed to fly, then what shape would their wings take – goes further. In growing cells for the purpose of exploring the shape of wings on pigs, they explore the aesthetic as well, because purpose-built forms in nature seem necessarily to be aesthetic. Forms having pleasing properties are naturally preferred, just as are beautiful theories in physics.

May we not say that these artists represent the extremes of science-inspired art — like in extreme sports, pushing the envelope of the possible?

Arthur I. Miller
May 2011