I recently read an essay on biology and art that presents the best case I've ever seen of integrating the two. Most examples of biology and art influencing each other describe what amounts to little more than a one-way street, with artists being inspired by living organisms, by biological research, or by the results of such research. It’s more difficult to find examples of scientists being assisted by artists beyond producing illustrations. The case I want to describe involves an artist who is also a biologist, and who has found his art to be essential to his research. He is Jonathan Kingdon, an authority on African mammals in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford in England. Raised in Africa, he remembers picnicking at Olduvai Gorge and spending vacations on the Serengeti plains. He trained as an artist at Oxford and then began teaching at the University of East Africa. There, Kingdon conceived the idea of studying the evolution of African mammals. Not surprisingly, he began by drawing them and, thus, by comparing the morphology of related species. He soon went on to investigate behavior, ecology, anatomy, and biogeography, but his work was always rooted in his art.
Kingdon describes in detail, and with the aid of many illustrations, how he used drawing as a way to observe these mammals closely and to correlate behavior with anatomy. He argues that photography couldn’t do the job: it didn’t force him to observe but did the work of looking for him, and in an inferior way. In addition, he makes a more novel argument: that a camera doesn’t see in the way a human does and so doesn’t create the kind of image that is most familiar to the human mind. A camera processes all points of light in the same manner, whereas the brain finds edges and creates constructions that are based on past experience. Kingdon continues: “If the brain is unlike a camera in actively seeking outlines, there is the strong implication that ‘outline drawings’ can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent” (Canfield, 2011, p. 139). This is an interesting argument for drawing as an adjunct to photos if not a substitute for them. Kingdon’s essay is filled with wonderful sketches to illustrate how he used art to learn about African mammals. These studies resulted in several major contributions to the zoological literature, because along the way Kingdon learned a great deal about the biology of these animals. His art and science really do create a “seamless whole,” to use an overworked term that I dislike, but in this case it’s definitely apt.
Kingdon’s essay is in Field Notes (Canfield, 2011), one of the best books I’ve read recently, the kind that makes you glad that you’re a biologist and involved in such a great observational enterprise. The contribution that follows his is by Jenny Keller, a science illustrator who teaches at California State University, Monterey Bay. This is a perfect location for her because she specializes in drawing marine organisms, from jellyfish to dolphins. She notes that “drawing requires that you pay attention to every detail” (p. 161), an argument for having our students draw as well.
In fact, Field Notes would be a wonderful book for students to read. There’s a great deal here on the importance of keeping good records, both written and visual. A broad range of disciplines is represented, from archaeology and anthropology to ornithology and ecology. The work of Joseph Grinnell is described, including his method for taking field notes. He was the first director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California Berkeley and suggested keeping three sets of notes: a journal with a narrative account, a catalogue of specimens collected, and descriptions of the species, including observations. This is obviously a tall order, especially while in the field. The first two elements are more often used than the third, and the list of specimens is obviously the most essential. There doesn’t seem to be anything about art here, but as Kingdon’s and Keller’s works show, observations can be visual as well as in text and numbers.
Nature Itself as Art
My next example of a link between art and biology involves using organisms themselves as art. At Wavehill, a public garden and cultural center in the Bronx, there was a class in plant pressing given by James Walsh, an artist who has done an installation called The Arctic Plants of New York City, whic`h included pressed plants (http://observatoryroom.org/2010/11/22/arctic-plants/). Walsh discovered that a lot of weeds in the New York area are plants native to the Arctic. These species moved into Europe as weeds and from there were transported to this country. He collected some of these plants, mostly from vacant lots, and studied their biology. His work is definitely multimedia, involving not only pressed plants but drawings and text as well.
In another outing in the New York area, I went to an exhibit of Japanese-style nature prints at the John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden on Long Island. Covering only four acres but so skillfully designed on a hillside that it’s easy to get lost in it, the garden has a small exhibit space, then filled with artwork by Jack Swartz, a retired high school principal who specializes in Gyotaku, a Japanese method for making prints of fish. I had never heard of this technique and had thought of nature printing as mainly a technique for printing plant images. Needless to say, I was wrong and have come upon many examples of Gyotaku since then, in part because I’ve become a member of the Nature Printing Society and read their book on nature printing of all kinds (Larsen, 2000). Such work is yet another way of examining living things more closely and keeping them with us to remind us of their beauty.
Nature prints can obviously be scientific documents, and in fact, a book on Antarctic fish is illustrated with nature prints (Nagase et al., 2006). These prints are definitely also works of art. The artist doesn’t just ink up a fish and plop it onto a piece of paper – the paper, the ink, and the fish all have to be carefully chosen and prepared. The placement of the specimen on the paper is all-important. Also, details such as the eye have to be touched up with more ink or watercolor. Working with fish is very different from working with plants, and it seems as if many nature printers specialize in one or the other. Nature printing is something that is great to do with kids in a science class, but as I’ve learned from Schwartz and his fellow artists, it can be much more than that. It is a means for relating to organisms and getting to know them in a different way. In the labels accompanying his artwork, Schwartz includes something about the biology and ecology of his subject; thus, the viewer can appreciate the specimen in the context of its life. So he remains a teacher even in his present life as an artist.
Doing Biology as Art
Some artists do biology as a way into their art. There is a quite active movement of artists into laboratories, and in many cases the results are more mind-teasing than aesthetically pleasing. This is conceptual art in which the ideas behind the work are central. I can’t say that I’m drawn to this approach, but because it so intimately involves biology I feel I should at least mention it here. Many of these explorations deal with synthetic biology, including genetic engineering (Reardon, 2011). The iconic work in this area is Eduardo Kac’s Alba. Kac teamed up with a molecular biologist to inject the gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP) into the fertilized egg of an albino rabbit in order to end up with a rabbit that glowed green in the dark. Animal rights advocates weren’t pleased with this experiment, nor were health officials with another example of bio-art: a New York artist procured genetically engineered bacteria for his work. Consequently, more recent art “experiments” seem to be a step removed from live organisms. In one example that received publicity recently, living cells were induced to grow a “worry doll,” more than 2 cm tall, made of biodegradable polymers to create the work Semi-Living Worry Doll. This was the product of a collaboration at the SymbioticA research center at the University of West Australia (Kemp, 2011). The work was shown at an exhibit called “Human +: The Future of Our Species” at the Science Gallery of Trinity College Dublin in 2011 to mark the gallery’s 10th anniversary (King, 2011a). This institution has mounted a number of bio-art shows, including “Visceral: The Living Art Experiment,” which showed a work in which hundreds of cockroaches watch a film about their sex life (King, 2011b). This is a long way from the beautiful drawings of Keller, and while it may be thought-provoking, it is not art that I am comfortable with (especially when it involves live cockroaches), nor is Emily Voigt (2009), who has written a critique of this type of art. So now I’ll return to more aesthetically pleasing realms, where there is more than enough good art to explore, especially in the sculptural realm.
Life in Glass
Several glass artists are using this medium to create beautiful and thought-provoking pieces. Steffen Dam is Danish and works in the tradition of the German father-and-son team of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, who are responsible not only for Harvard University’s famous glass flowers but also for blown-glass models of cells and of marine invertebrates. Dam’s work includes a piece in which blown-glass jellyfish are encased in glass filled with bubbles, which appear to be produced by the organisms themselves as they seem to swim in this glassy sea (Martin, 2010). The effect is beautiful, but also disturbing because this work is a form of conceptual art, carrying the message that perhaps in the future the only place we will see such beauty is literally frozen in glass.
Luke Jerram is a British glass artist interested in smaller organisms – microscopic and submicroscopic ones. With guidance from the virologist Andrew Davidson, Jerram has made glass sculptures of viruses such as SARS, smallpox, and HIV (Holden, 2009). He has also created a beautiful E. coli – flagella, pili, and all. Jerram argues that his pieces are more faithful to these organisms than illustrations are because the glass is transparent. I would add that his works are also three-dimensional, something else not possible with pictures on a page. The same can be said of Eun-Suh Choi’s work, which is not as realistic as Jerram’s but instead plays with cellular and fungal forms in creating amazing labyrinths of glass.
All this work is a reminder that glass is a wonderful medium for representing many organisms. After all, not only is glass transparent, it is also a liquid, and all organisms, particularly those that are small and lack rigid material, are composed primarily of liquid water. Rendering them in a “liquid” medium is a great reminder of this. No image of an organism is perfect, each medium has its strengths and weaknesses, but glass is one that is particularly apt for the microscopic and marine worlds, as the Blakschkas proved more than a century ago.
Of course, glass isn’t the only medium that can be used in creating beautiful sculptures depicting living things. A recent work that has several layers of biological significance is that of Courtney Mattison, a graduate student in environmental studies at Brown University (Anonymous, 2011). As an undergraduate at Skidmore College, she had a double major in marine biology and ceramics – a testament to the fact that combining widely divergent interests makes for a great college career. Mattison hopes to go on to a career in art, but first wanted to find out more about marine policy at Brown. However, she hasn’t forgotten about art. Her large sculpture of a coral reef (3 × 4.5 m) was exhibited at the U.S. Department of Commerce, so she seems to be doing well at combining her interests. She also does a good job in her art of pointing to problems in marine policy, such as the deterioration in coral reefs worldwide.
Another ceramicist with a scientific background is Christopher Adams, a doctor who sculpts abstract works that combine plant as well as insect and other animal forms (Culhoun, 2007). He is a dermatologist who has been sculpting with clay since college. Among his works are a “Medusa” series with mounds of knotted tentacles and also vascular system pieces that he used as study aids while in medical school. In addition he has produced a series of sculptures that trace the evolution of many “organisms” from a single form. Adams sees art and science as closely linked and says he is reminded of this every day as he looks at skin specimens under a microscope.
Insects are creatures that repulse many people and fascinate others. They have been sources of inspiration for a number of sculptors, including some who let their imaginations take off while others aim for realism. One example of the latter is Alfred Keller, who was trained as an “art blacksmith” and worked at the natural history museum in Berlin until his death in 1955. He created detailed models of insects and their larva, some of which are 100× life size. It would take him up to a year to complete one of these works. He began with a plasticine model, which was then encased in plaster as a reference. The final work was done in papier maché to which he would add details made of wax and celluloid – a fly he created had 2,653 bristles.
In an article on an exhibit of Keller’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin, Martin Kemp (2010) explores the question of whether Keller’s models are art or science. Kemp comes up with an interesting answer: in an art museum, their artistic qualities seem to come to the fore, whereas in a natural history museum it’s their scientific dimension that’s highlighted. Venue appears to influence what is appreciated – a point that would be good to keep in mind when visiting any cultural institution. However, Kemp ends with a comment that goes beyond location: “Keller’s artistry is always apparent in his observations of nature – and his scientific observations are essential to his art” (p. 507).
Insects seem to be hot subjects for a great deal of art at the moment, to the point that ARTnews ran an article by Carolina Miranda (2010) entitled “Beetlemania.” She obviously had fun writing this piece, which includes photographs of Mark Cockram’s The Decayed/Eaten Book, which was designed to be digested by beetles, and Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s A Garden of Insects that Look Like Plants, in which leaf-winged butterflies rest on branches. In Cardoso’s work and that of Jennifer Angus, who pins insects in elaborate patterns to white walls, the aim seems to be to make the viewer really look at the insects and stop taking them for granted by instead labeling them as “art.” François Riou tries to achieve the same goal in a different way, by creating fanciful insect models from pieces of electronic devices such as clocks and cell phones (Junier & Junier, 2010). What at first glance looks like a bug you’d find in the kitchen becomes a fascinating artwork on closer inspection, but it also makes the next bug you find more deserving of attention as well.
The sculptor Rona Pondick also uses familiar organisms in her work, but she gives them an almost surreal cast by the way she creates hybrids, such as animal bodies with human heads, and monkeys with human hands. Muskrat has the form of the title animal in shiny metal, but with the undersized head of a human, and human hands as well. As Barbara MacAdam notes (2010), Pondick’s works combine the sublime and the grotesque. From what I remember of aesthetics, the sublime is what is beyond beauty, either in its grandeur and horror or size; whereas the grotesque is the putting together of things, usually parts of living organisms, that just don’t go together. Using these definitions, MacAdam is definitely correct about Pondick’s work. There is something horrible and grotesque about Muskrat, and something memorable and grand as well. But the Pondicks I particularly like are those that combine human and plant forms, such as the outdoor stainless steel sculpture Head in Tree, which is just that, and Crimson Queen Maple, which looks like a leafless Bonsai tree in a pot, but on closer inspection is dotted with tiny heads. This work really gives new significance to the dependence of humans on plants and touches many deeper chords in dealing with what it means to be human and to be alive.
On the Roof
The relationship between humans and the natural world is also at the heart of Roxy Paine’s work. A few years ago, he had a huge tree-like structure called Maelstrom installed on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It weighed over 7 tons and enveloped viewers. In 2002, he constructed a 50-foot-high stainless steel tree in Central Park. He also makes hyper-real models of poison ivy and other noxious plants, but perhaps because a model of poison ivy, besides its educational value, doesn’t do much for me, I prefer the trees. They are leafless and eerie and make a stark statement about how we deal with nature. In an article on Maelstrom, Ken Johnson (2009) writes: “Mr. Paine is not a proselytizer for environmentalism. He is an empiricist philosopher creating visually fantastic thought-experiments that expand our assumptions about the nature of reality and the reality of nature” (p. C33). This is heady stuff, especially for those of us who teach teenagers. It’s also the kind of thought-provoking work that can foster critical thinking, which seems to be the holy grail of education at the moment.
The following summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had Big Bambú installed, or being installed, on its roof. This structure continued to be added to for several months while it was being exhibited. Big Bambú was the work of identical twin brothers, Doug and Mike Starn. They and their team of rock climbers lashed together about 5000 bamboo poles to create a huge structure that towered over museum-goers. I walked through it, but opted not to sign up for the tour up into the structure. When I was in the midst of it, I was glad to have read that the structure had been tested by teams of engineers to make sure that it was strong enough to withstand New York winds, rains, and tourists, but I wasn’t attracted to climbing into it. The Met Museum obviously likes to plan fun roof installations each summer, but these are also intellectually challenging. The sculptures are experienced rather than just viewed. In fact, you really can’t step back and appreciate them from afar, and the organic nature of both these works made the experience of them particularly rich for biologists.
At the other end of the scale from such large works is the 9-inch sculpture of an estrogen molecule by the artist Mara Haseltine. It is a beautiful piece, with the chemical structure of the molecule done in pink and encased in Lucite. Each year, the Society for Women’s Health gives a copy of this work to an outstanding female scientist (Abruzzo, 2009). Haseltine is known for her pieces that blend chemistry and art as beautifully as she did in this sculpture. She’s done a large outdoor piece called Waltz of the Polypeptides at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. With large shiny steel ribosomes linked by a strand of metal, it really makes RNA sing.
There is another form of sculpture that is definitely related to biology, but I hesitate to mention it. The pieces are made from feces that is dried, roasted in an oven for 4 hours (at 300°F, if you are interested), and then reduced to powder. The powder is mixed with a bioresin that is poured into a mold to produce a finished piece. The heating sanitizes the material, and the resin allows it to be shaped into a form that is stable. In one self-referential work, a waterless toilet was made out of horse dung.
I learned all this in an article by Iain Aitch (2009) in American Craft, where the term “craft” obviously tends to be broadly defined. Aitch describes the work of Virginia Gardiner, a Brooklyn-born designer living in London. When Gardiner got the brainstorm for this work, she had a hard time finding her starting material. She asked at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, reasoning that the gardeners there would know where to get dung. They did, and suggested that she get in touch with their source, the cavalry stabled in Hyde Park (good to know in case you want to follow Gardiner’s recipe). Besides the toilet, Gardiner has used her recipe to create an octagonal paperweight (which she thinks would also make a good child’s toy) and a deer’s-head candelabra – with brass fittings, of course. I obviously enjoyed this article and this concept, but it is work that also says a great deal about recycling and about considering every possible way of using the resources around us.
All the works of art I’ve described here are thought-provoking in part because they force consideration of the relationship between art and science, which is obviously multifaceted. In works like the anatomical drawings of Jonathan Kingdon and the prints of Antarctic fish, it is the science that comes to the fore. In others, such as Rona Pondick’s grotesques, art is in ascendance, but even there the work is very dependent on close observation of nature and on our thinking about nature. In our overloaded curricula, we don’t have much time to share any of this art with students, but it would do them a terrible disservice if we didn’t sneak a little of it in from time to time.