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Art and science might seem unconnected and dissimilar, yet the combination of these two disciplines ...
2021-10-13 09:00:00

To Know Beautifully
Where Art and Science Meet

To Know Beautifully

What happens when we combine science and art? Art acquires a new dimension, while numbers reveal their charm. The art and science movement is gaining popularity.

Read in 11 minutes

When Stefanie moves her body, data clack. On her neck there is a thick line, on the line are patches of information. Some are green, with soft, rounded shapes; others are darker, navy blue, with the sides serrated like the edges of an oak leaf. Finally, there are single patches that stick out and resemble strange bookmarks hanging from between the pages of a book: acid orange, neon bright, bristling with the spikes of a sharp zigzag. Each slice of data is the sum of a week’s measurements of fine particle air pollution, turned into the brightness and saw-edgedness of each of the shapes. The green and thornless ones represent the parts of the year with the lowest particle pollution. The ones that are thorny and tinged with fierce orange are the scraps of the year with the highest pollution level, when fine particle pollution exceeded norms, becoming a real life and health hazard for humans and other living organisms.

Gathered together and threaded onto a black cord, the patches form a baroque necklace. Stefanie explains that it is an attempt at ‘sensualizing’ data. Introducing them in a sensory dimension, engaging senses other than sight, used by default to take in data. In the case of the data in question, the approach seems to make even more sense – the data indirectly pertain to health, to the concentration of the toxic suspensions we inhale with air. The necklace also demonstrates a gradation of pain. Periods of relatively clean air rest on the skin gently, the rounded edges are not a bother. However, periods of extreme levels of particle air pollution dig into the skin painfully, bother, annoy with their aggression and spikiness.

In other words, on her neck Stefanie Posavec wears beaded numbers. On the one hand, this is science – a three-dimensional chart made of plexiglass formed according to the numerical value of the chosen parameter. Meticulously counted, probably with the help of an electronic nose, which is able, via electric impulses or the penetrating laser light, to count the billions and trillions of dust particles in the air. On the other hand, it is art, an object beautiful in an abstract way and actually devoid of any practical use, but unfailingly provoking emotions. For some, an object completely incomprehensible; for others, full of contexts.

Art and science – the marriage of two seemingly unconnected human activities, considered by many to be so different and making use of such dissimilar sets of notions and tools, that combining them should be impossible. Still, art and science increasingly often join forces, sometimes in quite surprising ways. It is not just about recognizing science as the basis of art. Nearly every branch of art is governed by a branch of science; each one is ruled by the laws of physics or chemistry. In essence, painting is the physical chemistry of pigments, of light’s interactions with the texture of the canvas and the atomic orbitals of the pigments the paint contains. Sculpture, in turn, is resilience, brittleness and hardness. The gloss, fragility and plasticity of the material. Art and science is not, however, about the physico-chemical processes that enable working in a given branch of art, but about a convergence of artistic and scientific content, a blending of the two into one. About creating one work, which everyone – depending on their favourite point of view or their resources of knowledge and artistic sensitivity – will see differently.

Whiteness full of colours

In the 1660s, Isaac Newton experimented with light. One day, when he pointed a thin strip of light at a glass prism, a fountain of colours sprang out from the other edge of the transparent block. This act, an observation banal in its simplicity, had fundamental consequences. Newton demonstrated that white light is made up of colours, and that precisely these components of whiteness are responsible for the colour of illuminated objects. Sometimes I like to imagine this moment: the room is dark and airless, the windows covered with heavy curtains. Streaks of light cut from daylight shoot through the air, with dust circling around inside them. On the path of one such ray, Newton places the following objects, one after another: lenses, mirrors, blocks of glass. At one point, with the light falling at the correct angle and with the correct placement of the screen, the white ray turns into a colourful spectrum. What was Newton thinking then? Was it a moment of pure mathematical logic? A calculation that would later find reflection in his 1704 work, Opticks? Or maybe, for a short while, probably casually and mechanically, the ingenious physicist became lost in thought, and – seeing the fluid gradient of vivid colours blurring into each other – forgot about physics and simply succumbed to beauty?

Becoming dumbstruck in genuine awe over the beauty of science does not seem extraordinary for a scientist – at least, this is what I, being a scientist myself, would like to think. Reality is wonderfully beautiful, logical and, on every level of its complexity, is an intricately arranged system of laws and dependencies. Science discovers and describes them, the researcher should thus perceive the said beauty, in the bare data and in the process of coldly applying the scientist’s measure to reality. If science is the search for rules and regularities in the world, the sensation of beauty should accompany every scientific discovery.

Yet art and science is about something more still. Here, beauty is not just a transitional stage in the scientific description of the world – it becomes a tool in its own right, the ultimate language used to describe reality. The example of colours illustrates it perfectly. After Newton unwove the light rainbow using the constraints and the language of physics, someone else, a person from the opposite, ‘non-scientific’ end of the creativity spectrum, decided to have a look at the same problem. The person in question was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, better known as a poet and writer than an enthusiast of science. His book, published early in the 19th century, was entitled Theory of Colours. Goethe adopted a different perspective than Newton – he focused on the perception of colour, on its subjectivity and emotional charge. Methodically presenting his theory of colours, he combined in an unusual way a scientific exactness and consistency with visual perfection – his book is still considered a masterful moulding of aesthetic piety with a strict, logical order.

Magnetism, glaciers and porno

London’s Tate Modern surrendered to fog: it arrived from above the Thames and amputated the building’s high tower. What was left was a cuboid body, a brick monolith, which I am now entering. Above the entrance: an enigmatic banner that reads ‘TAKIS’. I flit through the Turbine Hall and head for the lifts. I go to the fourth floor, a sinuous gallery on the left. There, again, a dangling plate that reads ‘TAKIS’.

Inside, some movement. Languorous, at times so slow or slight that I need to rely on the corner of my eye attuned to waverings verging on stillness. For instance, outside the entrance of the gallery’s corridor is a flat white pedestal with pliable needles ending with black truckles. All the elements together look like a field of charred poppies. Above them: two pendulums drawing concise figures of eight in the air. There is something going on between the needles-poppies and the pendulums. The iron flowers, as if following invisible light, sway in a non-existent wind. I am taking a guess: magnetism. A mysterious force that a physicist would describe with the hieroglyphs of Maxwell’s equations. Here in pure form, because between the heads of the magnetic flowers and the pendulums that hypnotize them there is nothing: no instruction manual, arrows or labels, no magnetic field lines sprinkled with iron filings, which you remember from physics lessons at school. Still I can intuitively recreate the laws of magnetism: the weakening of the attractive force further from the magnetized pendulum, the complex quavering of the ‘flowers’, attracting some nuggets of blackness and repulsing others. If we approached this work scientifically, we could probably work out the inverse-square law determining the fundamental forces, but also the chaos resulting from ordering, when many objects dynamically interact with each other at the same time.

In the next rooms: even more movements and immobilities. Huge balls made of a black material and hung on obscenely thin pieces of wire circle one another, clearly cross, surely because of having the same magnetic poles. Repulsion of like charges – once again, free of the equations’ scribbles, just silence, balls, movement. On one of the walls is a device with a luminous blue streak shooting from one edge. Cathode rays, a physicist would think. The ray flies through a maze of wires, magically bends and shoots down. The Lorentz force lights up in my mind. On another wall is a static sculpture, irritatingly trapped in stillness: several pieces of metal hung mid-air in unnatural positions, with no strings or support, everything held in place by finely tuned magnetic forces.

Takis – or, to be precise, Panayiotis Vassilakis – was famous for the masterful use of invisible forces and energies in his work. Even though he worked a long time before the art and science movement had been named and recognized as a separate artistic phenomenon, he was happy to employ the laws of physics in his kinetic constructions and electromagnetic installations. His works are the essence of art and science – we see a particular scientific phenomenon, meticulously used without being called by name, without an ostentatious description of physical reality with the language of science. Instead, art explores a fragment of the universe, its electromagnetic nature, with a code of geometric structures, slowness, the elusiveness of movement and an invisible interaction. Takis’s physical sculptures levitate in the air; between their elements you can almost feel the sticky threads of electromagnetic fields, you wish you could grab a pair of scissors and cut these frail connections. It is the tangibility of the physical process one cannot experience reading differential electromagnetic equations, enriched by the aesthetics of order, the embarrassment at the work’s scale, the tension built by the arrangement of its elements in space.

Contemporary artists boldly draw upon science. I love to comb through the sometimes wonderfully pretentious descriptions of artworks to find little scientific gems. These are no longer the thinly veiled allusions of Takis’s kinetic slowness, although they are still thoroughly physical. The contemporary artist knows that interacting with matter, he or she deals with its scientific nature, with the physical and biological nature of the world as it is being scientifically examined. And that by properly referencing the more exact, scientific side of reality, a new dimension can be added to the piece of art.

My beloved Cornelia Parker understands it perfectly. The British artist has shown her impossible pieces all over the world – recently I saw her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Parker uses science imperceptibly. She loves processing matter and everyday objects using their physico-chemical properties. For instance, to make her Pornographic Drawing she dissolved in thick oil the iron oxide extracted from pornographic video tapes confiscated by British customs officials. With the paint she produced from this process, she made a series of inkblots, each half a mirror reflection of the other, suggestive of a Rorschach test. The very process of obtaining the pigments was extraordinary – thanks to it, the work has several layers of meaning. On a different occasion, in her work Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon, Parker took an ordinary object, a silver spoon, and she stretched it, turning it into a wire equal to the length of Niagara Falls. In both cases, science is not necessary to interpret the piece of art, but it is an integral part of the work – another dimension giving the piece a new character and inviting us not only to consider the artist’s emotions, but also the complex mechanics of an unusual creative process.

Olafur Eliasson – a Danish-Icelandic artist and performer, a master of big scale installations that explore the mysteries of light, movement, liquid flow – goes even further as he explicitly refers to science. Incidentally, a retrospective exhibition of his work was taking place on another floor at Tate Modern at the same time as Takis’s work was on display. Eliasson is fully aware of the power of his art, he can perfectly play with the scale and size of his objects, evoking in the viewer a sense of smallness, helplessness, disorientation. Many of his pieces use science to convey a very well-defined – both emotionally and content-wise – message. For instance, in one series Eliasson faces the problem of global warming. Outside the buildings of the world’s biggest galleries (including Tate Modern) he placed huge blocks of arctic ice, hauled away from Greenland’s coastal waters. Bare, left to their own devices, fully unprocessed, they were raw data of sorts, the most direct representation of reality. The blocks – placed in such a way that everyone could touch them – also became acutely simple measuring devices, recorders of the heat that relentlessly melts the Artcic and destroys the planet’s ecosystems. Other pieces by Eliasson are in a similar spirit, good examples being Glacial Currents (abstract watercolours made from paint diluted with melting ice cubes) or The Presence of Absence (metal negative casts of glacier fragments with empty spaces left by the melting Arctic ice).

The manifesto

I admire and adore all of these pieces, with their scientific roots concealed to a lesser or greater degree. Even though as a researcher I should always be looking for exactness, unambiguity, a precise message, I succumb to fluidity, emotions and a conscious blurring of reality, which are at the core of each of these artworks. I think I even question the dictate of science as the only way to objectively describe the truth about the world. Instead, I think I want a democratic equality of science and art, I want for the two to constantly permeate each other, to enter a symbiosis as deep as possible. Deep down I want to be like Ernst Haeckel, the German embryologist and evolutionist working at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries. His most monumental work is the monograph entitled Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature) – a collection of 100 colouristically-stunning lithographs depicting structures created by living organisms, from star-shaped radiolaria and dinoflagellates to mathematically-perfect flowers and anthozoans. Haeckel introduced the word Kunst – ‘art’ – already in the book’s title. The scientist was motivated in equal degrees by beauty, a delight in nature’s order, as by exactness, the constraints of taxonomical classification and anatomical precision.

The beauty of art and science pieces lies in their universality. A scientist and an artist are actually not that different from each other. Both move in the world of ideas, create reality according to particular rules, communicating the effects of their research to the world. Quite often, both use a language understandable only to a select few – in this sense, they both become modern priests of sorts, the magi of their fields, specialized in the use of mysterious procedures and signs. Both in the case of hermetic art, dissociated from reality and in the case of technicized, excessively abstract science, the end result is often incomprehensible for a common person, even though we should be striving to communicate ideas to the widest possible audience. The combination of science and art – using the tools of science while also appealing to the audience’s emotions – may help solve the inaccessibility issue. What is democratic about such an interweaving is that the message becomes accessible on many levels. On a scientific one (if it reaches a viewer with the right awareness, or a background in science), as well as an emotional one (often working on an unconscious level through non-verbal communication). After all, scientific data can dazzle a specialist, but they can also hurt, sting, tingle on one’s neck. Who knows, perhaps the latter way of presenting data may be more effective? Science is art, and art, science. Our fervent attempts at pigeon-holing them are in vain.

 

Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski

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Published:

Szymon Drobniak

is an evolutionary biologist, researcher on colour, ornithologist, illustrator and author. A passionate fan of diagrams, cross-sections and pea soup. In his spare time, he collects roots (not the mathematical kind).