Mutual Inspiration: Science and Art

There was a time when I narrowly thought that science and art exist at opposite ends of a spectrum. It was hard to envision Einsteins and Pollocks collaborating. Yet, according to an article I read last month in the New York Timesthat's exactly what's happening at the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Cambridge. The results are innovative, to say the least.

From the "Sandcastles" Series by Vik Muniz and Marcelo Coelho. Source: http://totb.ro/foto-castele-desenate-pe-un-graunte-de-nisip/

From the "Sandcastles" Series by Vik Muniz and Marcelo Coelho.
Source: http://totb.ro/foto-castele-desenate-pe-un-graunte-de-nisip/

For example, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz was able to etch superfine lines on a single grain of sand. It took four years of trial and error in co-operation with lab technician Marcelo Coelho at M.I.T's Media Lab. Muniz used an electron microscope with a focused ion beam to create images of castles. They were then scanned and printed large scale for a series called "Sandcastles."

The article goes on to describe other projects, including the fabrication of art pieces with trained virus cells (!) and Tomás Saraceno's utopian vision of flying around the world on one of his buoyant sculptures. His observation of spiders has led to gallery-sized web sculptures reminiscent of neural pathways and and the ever-expanding cosmos.

"Galaxy forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider´s web" (2008), by Tomás Saraceno.  Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Source: http://artpulsemagazine.com/venice-biennale-making-worlds

"Galaxy forming along filaments, like droplets along the strands of a spider´s web" (2008), by Tomás Saraceno. 
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Source: http://artpulsemagazine.com/venice-biennale-making-worlds

I found the MIT project interesting because, a few months earlier, I had responded to Pence Gallery's call for entry on “The Consilience of Art and Science.” While my textile submissions weren't juried into the show, the chosen pieces were definitely thought-provoking. Take Anna Davidson's "Fungal Quilt," 5" x 5.5', made with fungus, potato dextrose agar, thread, and polyurethane. A scientist and an artist, Davidson invited other scientists to a quilting bee, where they created the quilt made from other organisms. Her intention was to create a dialogue between science and domesticity.

"Fungal Quilt" (2014), by Anna Davidson. Source: http://www.pencegallery.org/Exhibits_2016/01_Jan/artists and http://www.clayburgcreate.com/annadavidson/anna/uncategorized/665//Davidson.html

"Fungal Quilt" (2014), by Anna Davidson. Source: http://www.pencegallery.org/Exhibits_2016/01_Jan/artists
and http://www.clayburgcreate.com/annadavidson/anna/uncategorized/665//Davidson.html

New Mexico fiber artist Betty Busby, inspired by biology and paleontology, creates beautifully detailed and colorful macro pieces. Made of cotton and wool, "Third Colony," 65"x42", was also in Pence's science and art show.

"Third Colony" (2012), by Betty Busby. Source:  http://www.pencegallery.org/Exhibits_2016/01_Jan/artists/Bushby.html

"Third Colony" (2012), by Betty Busby. Source: 
http://www.pencegallery.org/Exhibits_2016/01_Jan/artists/Bushby.html

Although her 12"x12" acrylic painting "Shine a Light" reminds me of stained glass windows in a cathedral, Canadian artist Pauline Truong is depicting tagged human breast cancer cells, captured by an innovative technology called Multiplexed Ion Beam Imaging (MIBI). Discovered by scientists at Stanford, UC Davis, and San Francisco, MIBI uses secondary ion mass spectrometry to image antibodies that have been labeled with pure elemental metals, which enables researchers to examine multiple proteins simultaneously.

"Shine a LIght" (2015), by Pauline Truong. Source: http://www.pencegallery.org/Exhibits_2016/01_Jan/artists/Truong.html

"Shine a LIght" (2015), by Pauline Truong. Source: http://www.pencegallery.org/Exhibits_2016/01_Jan/artists/Truong.html

Pence Gallery's call for entry made me reflect on what artists and scientists have in common. Rather than considering one group more right-brained and the other more left-brained, I realized that they share a great deal.

Franz Liszt (c1869), by Franz Seraph Hanfstaengl.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Franz Liszt (c1869), by Franz Seraph Hanfstaengl. 
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

First, there's the element of imagination, so essential to both. As Hungarian composer, pianist, and conductor Franz Liszt (1811-1886) reputedly said, "Without imagination there is no art and neither science." Without imagination, artists and scientists would not have the enthusiasm to push against the boundaries of what's already known or what's already been done, nor how we know and do.

Albert Einstein (Vienna, 1921). Photo by Ferdinand Schmutzer. https://commons.wikimedia.org

Albert Einstein (Vienna, 1921). Photo by Ferdinand Schmutzer. https://commons.wikimedia.org

Then there's the fact that scientists and artists ponder similar questions because they observe the world, working toward an understanding of life: What is our place in the universe? Who are we? What are we? Where are we headed? German-American physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) believed that "the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science."

While many artists work intuitively rather than logically, they still engage in a step-by-step process, just like scientists. Science and art are disciplines that embrace similar features, such as experimenting, investigating techniques and materials, exploring the environment, human and nonhuman beings, activities, weather, seasons, inner life, and more. Scientists and artists transform what they've experienced and share their perceptions, insights, perspectives, and solutions. While they use different means and mediums, they both offer discoveries we can apply or simply behold. They work long hours in labs or studios, undergoing frustration, disappointment, and failure until they achieve their goal.

T'ung Jen, Hexagram 13 of I Ching, Fellowship/Heaven over Fire

T'ung Jen, Hexagram 13 of I Ching, Fellowship/Heaven over Fire

One of the pieces I submitted to "The Consilience of Art and Science" is based on T'ung Jen, Hexagram 13 of the I Ching. To me, it represents the relationship between science and art. T'ung Jen is defined as "fellowship" and formed by the trigrams Heaven over Fire. It's about working together to attain a desired objective. Imagination from the heavenly realm (ideas out of thin air?) is forged in the fire of discipline to produce results. Artists inspire scientists and scientists inspire artists--both are groundbreakers. Scientific breakthroughs have enabled artists to use new mediums in their creativity; artistic breakthroughs have presaged scientific explanations. Differences and similarities in cooperation rather than conflict.

"T'ung Jen - Fellowship/Heaven over Fire (Hexagram 13 of I Ching)," by Mirka Knaster.

"T'ung Jen - Fellowship/Heaven over Fire (Hexagram 13 of I Ching)," by Mirka Knaster.

Questions and Comments:
How would you describe the relationship between science and art? Where is there compatibility; where is there tension?
How has science helped artists in their creative endeavors? How has art helped scientists?
How do you use science in your art?

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