Tuesday, 29 May 2012

How to be cyantific: connecting the laboratory to the artist's studio

Moving house - or more broadly speaking, hemispheres - last year was a good excuse for a spring clean on an epic scale. One of the items that didn't make the grade even as far as a charity shop was a framed painting I created several decades' ago, a clumsy attempt to describe scientific imagery in acrylics. In front of a false colour radar map of the surface of Venus was the head and neck of a raptor dinosaur above a bowler-hatted figure straight out of Rene Magritte. You can judge the work for yourself below; I seem to remember the bemusement of the framer but as I said at the time, it wasn't meant to be to everyone's taste...

But if my daub was rather wide of the mark, just how successful have attempts been to represent the theory and practice of science in the plastic, non-linear, arts such as painting and sculpture? Whereas musical and mathematical ability seem to readily connect and there has been some admirable science-influenced poetry, by comparison the visual arts are somewhat lacking. Much has been written about the Surrealist's use of psychoanalysis but as this discipline is frequently described as a pseudoscience I've decided to cut through the issue by ignoring it and concentrate on the 'hard' sciences instead.

Combining science and art - or failing to
One of the most difficult issues to resolve (especially for those who accept C.P. Snow's theory of 'two cultures') is that whilst most science books for a general readership describe a linear progression or definitive advancement to the history of science, art has no such obvious arrow of change. After all, a century has passed since the early non-realist movements (Cubism, les Fauves, etc.) but there are plenty of contemporary artists who avoid abstraction. Granted, they are unlikely to win any of the art world's top prizes, but the progression of science and its child technology over the past three or so centuries clearly differentiates the discipline from the arts, both the sequential schools of the West and the 'traditional' aesthetics of other cultures.

Of course, it's usual to differentiate the character of scientists and artists about as far apart as any human behaviour can get, but like most stereotypical ideas it doesn't take much to prove them wildly inaccurate. Anyone aware of Einstein's views ("Imagination is more important than knowledge") or his last unsuccessful decades spent on a unification theory that ignored quantum mechanics will understand that scientists can have as imaginative and colourful personality as any artist. Indeed, the cutting edge of theoretical science, especially physics, may rely on insights and creativity as much as advanced mathematics, a far cry from the popular image of dull, plodding scientists who follow dry, repetitive processes.

Another aspect worth mentioning is that our species appears unique in the ability to create representations of the world that can be recognised as such by most if not all of our species. Despite Congo the chimpanzee gaining enough kudos in the 1950s for Picasso and Miro to buy his paintings, as well as more recent media interest in elephant art works, there is no evidence that under controlled experimental conditions non-human artists can produce obviously realistic images unaided. Then again, could it be that we are so biased in our recognition patterns that we do not identify what passes for realism in other species? Might it be possible that other animals interpret their work as representational when to us it resembles the energetic daubs of toddlers? (This suggests shades of Douglas Adams's dolphins, who considered themselves more intelligent than humans because rather than build cities and fight wars, all do is muck about in water having a good time...)

So where do we start? Firstly, what about unintentional, science-generated art? Over the past decade or so there has been a spate of large format, text-light, coffee table books consisting of images taken by space probes, telescopes and Earth resources satellites. A recent internet success consisted of time lapse photography of the Earth taken by crew aboard the International Space Station; clearly, no-one spent a hundred billion US dollars or so just to make a breath-taking video, but the by-products of the project are a clear example of how science can incidentally create aesthetic work. This isn't just a contemporary phenomenon either: the earliest examples I can think of are Leonardo da Vinci's dissection drawings; in addition to being possibly the most detailed such illustrations until today's non-invasive scanning techniques they are also beautiful works of art in themselves. But then Leonardo's intentions appear to have been to both investigate the natural world for the sheer sake of learning as well as improve his painting technique by knowledge of the underlying anatomy. I wonder if there are any contemporary artists who use MRI technology or similar as a technical aid for their draftsmanship?

At the other end of the spectrum (groan), mathematician Marcus du Sautoy's 2010 BBC TV series The Beauty of Diagrams was an interesting discourse on how certain images created for a scientific purpose have become mainstream visual symbols. From Vitruvian Man, da Vinci's analysis of ideal human proportions, to the double helix diagram of DNA (incidentally first drawn by Odile Crick, an artist married to a scientist), these works integrate the transmission of information with a beautiful aesthetic. The latter example is particularly interesting in that the attempt to illustrate complex, miniscule structures in an easily understandable format has since become a mainstay of science diagrams, shorthand that is frequently interpreted by the non-specialist as a much closer representation of reality than the schematic it really is.

Physicist and writer John Gribbin has often stated that the cutting edge science of the past century, especially physics, has had to resort to allegory to describe situations at scales far removed from human sensual experience. This implies that an essential method by which science can be conveyed is via the written metaphor and visual symbolism. As we delve further into new phenomena, science may increasingly rely on art to describe ideas that cannot for the foreseeable future be glimpsed at first hand. But ironically this could have a deleterious effect on public understanding if the model is too successful, for then it becomes difficult to supplant with a more accurate theory. An obvious example is the architecture of the atom, with the familiar if highly inaccurate classical model of electrons orbiting the nucleus like a miniature solar system prevalent long after the development of quantum electrodynamics.

You might ask how difficult would it be to describe probabilities and world paths in conventional art media, but Cubism was a style attempting to combine different viewpoints of a subject into one composition. If this appears too simplistic, then it may seem more convincing once you know that physicist Niels Bohr was inspired by Cubist theories during the development of the Complementarity Principle on the wave-particle duality. Cubism is of course only one of the more obvious visual tricks but even the most photo-realistic painting requires techniques to convert three dimensional reality (well four, if you want to include time), into two dimensions. How often do we consider this conversion process in itself, which relies on a series of visual formula to produce the desired result? It may not be science, but the production of most art isn't a haphazard or random series of actions.

It's easy to suggest that a fundamental difference between science and the plastic arts is that the former is ideally built of a combination of method and results whilst the latter is firmly biased towards the works alone. An exception can be seen in abstract expressionism, a.k.a. action painting: at art college we were taught that to practitioners of this school the moment of creation was at least as important as the final result. To this end, Jackson Pollock was filmed painting from as early as 1950, with numerous other artists of various movements following suit soon after. In general though, the art world runs on the rich individuals and corporations who buy the works, not the theories of critics.

And what of art theory? Most of it isn't relevant here, but one of the fundamentals of composition is the harmony and rhythm generated by the use of mathematical ratios and sequences. The Golden section and Fibonacci series are frequently found in organic structures, so in a sense their use is a confirmation of that old adage that the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to nature. If that sounds trite, why not examine works by contemporary artists inspired by scientific theories or methodologies? That's coming in the next post...