We're very tickled today because the Mars Phoenix lander has "friended" us on Facebook, which makes us feel very special, even though Phoenix has over 2000 such close personal friends (including the Spousal Unit and several fellow science bloggers). I was a bit late to the party, but happy to finally be included in all the festivities -- no doubt with DJ Spock providing the groovy tunes. And now I feel like I really know my new friend, after reading this two-part interview with the Neural Gourmet. Apparently Phoenix even has a Twitter account, making this particular NASA excursion a bit of an experiment in interactive performance art.
But the subject of today's image-heavy post is about more traditional visual art, and how so many artists have found inspiration in the concepts of science -- and maybe even vice versa. Because why should Jessica Palmer over at Bioephemera have all the fun? For the all the fuss about C.P. Snow's infamous notion of "two cultures," art and science have a rich long history of feeding into each other, despite certain differences in what each deems most important. For instance, a scientist mostly cares that the science is correct, and if an image is also aesthetically beautiful, well, that's just a bonus. Many people refer to this sort of work as "scientific visualization." (If your name was Leonardo da Vinci, the boundary was a bit more blurred, but even Leonardo would, I think, distinguish between some of his engineering and anatomical sketches -- exquisitely rendered though they are -- with fully realized works like the Mona Lisa.)
The undisputed queen of scientific visualization today is MIT's Felice Frankel, whose stunning images of things like colonies of bacteria or the behavior of water molecules have graced many a cover of the leading scientific journals (Nature, Science, Physics Today, and so forth). She co-authored a book, Envisioning Science, with George Whitesides, which is well worth checking out if you're at all interested in science imagery. And you can read an extensive online interview with Frankel here.
Perhaps her most famous photograph is the one below, depicting a drop of ferrofluid on a glass slide atop a slip of yellow paper, under which are seven small circular magnets that affect the form of the drop. The shape of the fluid, the color contrasts, please our visual senses on a purely aesthetic level, while the underlying scientific concept remains uncompromised. That's a pretty tough thing to do, which explains why the image is the most reproduced of any of Frankel's work. In fact, she claims to be "sick of it." So naturally we have to reproduce it here, with apologies to Frankel for proliferating her artistic meme.:
Frankel's work is aesthetically pleasing, as well as scientifically accurate, but is it art? When she was profiled in the New York Times last summer, that question prompted quite a bit of debate. I pondered it heavily myself: what makes a science-inspired image truly "art"? Perhaps there is a debate, not so much because Frankel is blurring boundaries, but because she has raised the standard for scientific visualization to an unprecedented high level, making it much harder to tell the difference. Few others have even come close to the caliber of her work. University of Chicago physicist Sidney Nagel is known for his stunning photographs of liquid drops eerily in suspended in time, making him a notable exception:
Nagel's primary focus, however, is the science: he's an expert on the physics of fluids and granular materials, and his photography -- while both skillful and visually stunning -- serves the purpose of his work. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that; but is it, therefore, art? Frankel herself says no. "My stuff is about phenomena," she told the New York Times. "So I don't call it art. When it's art, it's more about the creator, not necessarily the concept in the image." During my own ponderings, I concluded something similar: visualization accurately renders the science, preferably in an arresting, artful manner; an artistic work transforms it to reflect the creative impulse of the artist. Both, however, can make you look at familiar phenomena in a strikingly new way. Some people were kinda bothered by Frankel's seeming dismissal of her work, but this implies a value judgment: that art is somehow more "pure" or important than visualization. I don't agree. Frankel is at the top of her field (scientific visualization), and we do her no disservice by recognizing what her work is... and what it isn't.
Not that scientists can't become highly accomplished artists, mind you. I just learned about Frank Malina, an aeronautical engineer, rocketry pioneer, and first director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while reading M.G. Lord's excellent book, Astroturf: The Private Life of Rocket Science. After World War II, Malina fell victim to McCarthyism and wound up working for UNESCO in Paris. Always a bit of a polymath, with broad cultural interests, later in life, Malina ended up drawing upon his engineering expertise to become one of the early pioneers of kinetic art -- which really flummoxed the federal agents charged with keeping tabs on his supposedly subversive activities -- simply because he was interested in expanding "the limitations of paint."
For instance, he'd add actual depth (as opposed to illusory) by placing wire mesh or string over the surface of a painting. Then, while taking down the family Christmas tree in 1955, he thought it would a marvelous idea ("Zoinks!") to incorporate blinking Christmas lights into the wire mesh to add a sense of movement to his art. Per Lord:
"Soon Malina began 'painting' with electric motors. These drove wheels that were divided into colored sections. Images were formed through the overlap of colors and shapes and were in constant flux. The apex of Malina's technical innovations may be what he termed his Lumidyne system. It involved light projected onto and through Plexiglass screens to form fluid, soft-edged, ever-changing patterns. Malina's Lumidyne pieces often evoked astronomical phenomena. Not dependent on external illumination -- electricity drove their lights and motors -- the radiant compositions suggest swirls of gas and dust around distant stars."
Apparently, the European art world was a bit slow to appreciate Malina's artwork; he had equal numbers of fans and detractors, and the FBI, frankly, didn't get it at all. (I mean, if he wasn't encoding secret messages to his imaginary Commie cronies in his artwork, what could possibly be the point?) Here's a slightly grainy picture of his 1956 piece, "Point Counter Point":
Malina also founded Leonardo, a journal dedicated "to documenting work at the intersection of the arts, science and technology." I'm guessing he wasn't a big believer in that whole "Two Cultures" thing either. He makes a nice addition to my growing "collection" of artists inspired by science. And so does Lia Halloran, an LA-based artist whom I met over the weekend at a friendly gathering of scientists and artists in Pasadena (the spirit of Malina would have smiled upon the scene). She's a big physics-fan, and it very much informs her art: she's figured out visually arresting ways to make the abstract and/or invisible apparent to the viewer. Her 2007 show at DCKT Contemporary gallery at Bowery and Spring Street in New York City was called The World is Bound with Secret Knots. The exhibit featured six figure paintings exploring the interaction of unseen physical forces of nature with human figures, like this one, entitled "Centripetal-Centrifugal":
For those in the NYC area -- or if you're planning on attending the SciBling meetup of SEED Science Bloggers and readers -- head on down to the DCKT gallery in Soho to take in Halloran's latest show, Dark Skate. (Those living elsewhere can view most of her work on her Website.) Yep, she's an avid skateboarder, and knows darn well that this involves a heck of a lot of physics. The new show features a series of photographs taken at night in various locations around Los Angeles where skaters (or "sk8ers" as the kids today call them) converge. She used light (how? I dunno, but I'll be sure to ask) to trace a line while Halloran skateboarded around the venues. The result: images that clearly show the trajectory of her movements over time -- evidence of past action, but with no trace of the figure that left the pattern. (Particle physicists can probably relate.) Here's one of those images, taken in nearby Griffith Park:
Long-time readers might recall my blogging about the work of Connecticut-based painter Nash Hyon in 2006, who works primarily with encaustics (wax-based paints). I'd seen her paintings included in an exhibit at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, and have been a fan ever since. As often happens in this Internet age, Hyon stumbled on my blog post several months later, and invited me to visit her studio in Connecticut, where I got to see the whole encaustics process in action. She still had my favorite painting: "Gadolinium." With the Spousal Unit's permission, we bought it, and it now graces our Los Angeles bedroom.
Hyon just put up her own Web site (and a blog!), which is well worth checking out. Because all her paintings are striking. One series is called ATCG, drawing on biology/genetics to explore what it means to be human. With her "Elements" series, she cherry-picks certain aspects from the scientific properties or history of an element in the periodic table and uses that as a basis for her painting. Sometimes the connection is fairly obvious, as with "Lithium" (#3), a soft alkali metal commonly found in mood-stabilizing drugs to treat, for example, bipolar disorder:
Sometimes the connection is less clear (or not entirely scientific in nature). For instance, thanks to Hyon, I discovered an element I didn't even know existed: "Tantalum" (#73), a rare, hard, blue-grey transition metal found in many electronic components (or at least used in their manufacture). The name derives from the Greek myth of Tantalus, whom the gods punished after death by having him stand knee-deep in water with tasty fruit above his head. If he bent to drink the water, it drained beyond his reach. If he reached up for the fruit, the branches moved out of his reach. (Those Greek gods were right bastards, weren't they?) Hence our verb "to tantalize." And here's how Hyon transformed those random bits of information:
Thanks to a few links from various Sciblings, a few months ago, I discovered the work of Glendon Mellow, a.k.a., "The Flying Trilobite." He's an artist/illustrator with a quirky sensibility (and a style that calls to mind Dave McKean, among others), based in Toronto, Ontario, with his wife and a hermit crab named Shiny. At least that's his bloggy bio sez. His pieces aren't just about trilobites, but the creatures are often incorporated into many of his paintings, such as this one, called "Life as a Trilobite":
Artists aren't always so obvious with their nods to scientific inspiration, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. New York City artist Adam Cvijanovic made a splash a couple of years ago with his gigantic, room-sized multi-paneled mural, "Love Poem, 10 Minutes After the End of Gravity," showing a section of Los Angeles in the process of breaking up and floating away. "Love Poem," by his own admission, is certainly not a treatise on the force of gravity, nor is it 100% scientifically accurate. That was never the point. But he did successfully imagine a fanciful scenario of what might happen if, indeed, gravity suddenly disappeared (barring all the other apocalyptic stuff that would most likely have to accompany such a disastrous event)
I've known Cvijanovic for over a decade (he was married to one of my closest friends until recently, and he painted a gorgeous mural for my living room when I was still based in Washington DC -- and yes, I still miss it, thanks for the painful reminder). I have always been impressed with the degree of research and deep thought he puts into even the smallest element of a painting -- all artists do, to be sure, but folks like me rarely get an inside peek into that creative process, unless we know the artist personally. For instance, when he was working on a project that mimicked medieval illuminated manuscripts, he experimented for weeks at making his own parchment for ultimate verisimilitude.
Lately, he's been specializing in these giant installations of murals painted on Tyvek, so it works just like wallpaper: easily applied, and then removed. He just had a show this spring at Bellwether Gallery in New York called Colossal Spectacle: one giant installation inspired by D.W. Griffith's failed celluloid epic Intolerance, depicting the court of Babylonian king Belshazzar. This big climactic scene is what apparently bankrupted Griffith before his film could be completed. Cvijanovic is fascinated by this sort of hubris: spectacular display followed by a crash and inevitable decay. He's also keen on popular culture: I dimly recall a series of sketches he did of the James Bond (Connery era) movie Thunderball, just for fun: he'd pause the movie and give himself however long the DVD player gave him to sketch the outlines of the scene, and fill in the blanks from there. Just like scientists, artists can take their inspiration from any number of unlikely sources.
I bring the pop culture thing up because we all shared an inordinate fondness for Dogs Playing Poker, a campy series of oil paintings commissioned in 1903 to advertise cigars. Those darn dogs have become a significant cultural reference point, despite being of questionable artistic merit. For instance, in The Thomas Crown Affair, a stolen Monet turns out to be a fake, painted over a canvas of one of the Dogs Playing Poker series. Sure, it's funny, and more people are likely to recognize one of those paintings than your average Monet -- but is it art?
Probably not, or maybe we need to expand our definition still further to incorporate this particular subgroup of commercial art, which has other merits beyond the purely aesthetic. The Spousal Unit alerted me to an hilarious series of print ads for the Toyota Prius -- not official ones, some advertising dude just created them to plump up his portfolio -- recently featured on the blog Sociological Images (part of Contexts magazine). I think they're actually pretty brilliant, depicting folks engaged in all kinds of despicable behavior next to the car, with the tagline, "At least s/he drives a Prius." This one is my favorite, called "The Body Dump":
I think this series might be the next "Dogs Playing Poker." It's just the sort of thing I need to grace my office walls. I might not know anything about art, y'all, but I dang sure know what I like. Feel free to leave a comment, with links, to tell me about a science-inspired artist that you like. I need to add to my collection....