Do images produced by artists that explore interior spaces deserve a position in this grand tradition of scientific illustration, or are they to be neatly sequestered in the realm of pure aesthetics?
Scientific illustration of the physical structures of the body began with ink on parchment, thousands of years ago. Today, we see ever-more colorful illustrations of interior spaces, from tangled connectomes and fluorescent genomic images, to the digital simulations of the brain rendered on supercomputers. That’s what current science is giving us—what about our emotional response to the exploration of these inner worlds, to the unfolding complexity of structure and function? Do images produced by artists that also explore interior spaces deserve a position in this grand tradition of scientific illustration, or are they to be neatly sequestered in the realm of pure aesthetics?
The all-too-human tendency to do just this—to categorize the respective aims, tools, and eventual products of art and science into neat binaries—is the provocative target of the new Art & Science show at the GV Art Gallery, on display through 16 March in London’s Marylebone. Featuring the work of thirteen contemporary artists, the show’s real strength is in the diversity of materials on display—laser-etched glass, human skin, and Mildura River salt being a few examples— a clear indicator that this movement of interdisciplinary artists is branching out, extending its feelers into new domains of matter and media.
Take Nina Sellars’ new work on display, Encoding/ Decoding the Body, which presents us with an exhilarating conundrum of categorization. Hand-drawn with graphite on paper, the piece consists of a delicate rendering of the nerves of the brachial plexus as they descend from the spine and travel under the clavicle, with the brachial plexus then translated into a diagrammatic representation. We find a hand-drawn QR code below the brachial plexus image, inviting us to make use of ubiquitous mobile phone scanners to continue the experience of seeing this work. Upon scanning, we’re sent to a webpage only accessible via the artwork itself, where we are presented with a video of layered MRI scans of the artist’s brain. The scans were taken around the time the artist was sixteen and had a brain tumour on her pineal gland, which blocked the third ventricle. The surgical removal of the tumour damaged Sellars’ eyesight, leaving her blind for about 18 months—but her eyes still functioned during that time. It was Sellars’ brain that could not decipher the visual information coming in from the outside—the very brain we’re given visual access to through the artwork.
Magical, isn’t it? How all of a sudden the MRI imagery we otherwise consider purely “scientific” or “medical” assumes a rather personal, emotional context—a new form of portraiture— and we find ourselves gazing into these shifting sections of the artist’s brain, as if we may catch a glimpse of her somewhere inside those shifting grey landscapes. Sellars’ deft use of the QR code as a framing device, in the context of a gallery space, invites us in with a spirit of meaningful adventure— a difficult spirit to evoke with the more typical uses of this imagery, from the depersonalized scientific imagery of the brain we see in newspapers and journals to the mainstream use of QR codes as gimmicky advertising devices.
The thread of intimacy running through many of the works in the Art & Science show is perhaps felt no more acutely than in Andrew Krasnow’s use of his own skin to produce Defaced (Bank Note), seen for the first time at GV Art.
Between the the first Gulf War (1991) under George H.W. Bush and ending with the second Gulf War (2003) initiated by George W. Bush, Krasnow incorporated human skin into his art, asking Americans to question their moral certainty, and to resist blind allegiance to the state. Krasnow’s radical manipulation of materials—both of the sociopolitically charged bank note and the material derived from his own body layered on top of it—is perhaps its own sort of scientific experiment, chillingly tangible proof of one mind’s steady protest over a decade. It is an internal idea rendered quite quantitatively in external form, in the very stuff of thought itself—layers upon layers of tissue.
Katharine Dowson’s brilliantly titled My Soul is the jewel of the show, a secular icon of our times if there ever was one. Etched out of solid glass cubes with precise lasers, the artist’s brain has been frozen in time and space like a beetle in amber.
The object is both totally scientifically “accurate” in its proportions, and also somehow deeply charged with emotional and, dare I say, spiritual significance; it’s an object capable of provoking aesthetic awe, and at the same time would be quite useful in a biology classroom. In this respect, Dowson’s work returns us to the question of scientific illustration—where do we place this object in the grand tradition? We find ourselves again in murky categorical waters—for it is the very interior space of the human brain, as far as the tools of artists like Dowson or scientists creating fluorescent images are both concerned, that is the very seat of our complex and deeply subjective emotional lives. And to see the truest reflection of that subjectivity and emotion, who can say whether we should turn to science, or to art?