Alchemists mixing art and science – OZY
These artists combine two divergent disciplines to create beautiful and fascinating things.
Do you think that science and art are two divergent disciplines? Not necessarily. There are many polymaths in the world who have started to combine the two, from Leonardo da Vinci and his 15th-century “ornithopters” to contemporary Korean-American “bacteria” artist Anicka Yi. In our new COVID-19 world, science and art can offer us comfort – the former through the medical solutions and treatments it provides, the latter as a kind of emotional balm, a way to help us understand the turmoil that surrounds us.
Graffiti artist Banksy depicted a nurse wearing a superhero cape in an English hospital during the lockdown in that country in the spring of 2020. The elusive painter is not alone: many artists around the world have taken inspiration from the pandemic. Meet people who are as skilled in the art of science as they are in the science of art.
Street art. Banksy aside, a plethora of artists used the empty city streets as a canvas during the pandemic while art galleries and shows were closed. Some have used their art as a hymn to frontline workers. Others have used their art to mock politicians or just to lighten up the mood. British street artist John D’oh used a wall in Bristol to paint an image mocking former US President Donald Trump’s comment on injecting disinfectant to prevent COVID-19, while the artist Australian street protector LUSHSUX depicted Chinese President Xi Jinping in a hazmat suit saying, “Nothing to see. Continue.” Dominican Republic-based Jesus Cruz Artiles also known as Eme Freethinker painted a picture of Gollum from The the Lord of the Rings cradling a roll of toilet paper and saying, “My precious! In Atlanta, artists like Fabian Williams created huge face masks from white vinyl sheets and used them to cover murals of icons like Martin Luther King Jr. as part of an awareness campaign for the black community.
Ai Weiwei. Tired of your boring old masks? Wouldn’t you like to just get your hands on one of these designer objects, drawn by the revered contemporary Chinese artist himself? Light blue medical masks quickly became a symbol of the global pandemic, worn on faces around the world and now commonly found on the streets, but Ai’s masks are considered treasure, not garbage. The project began after the outspoken activist decorated a mask with an ink drawing of a raised middle finger and posted it to his Instagram account. The next thing he knew, people were asking where they could buy them. So Ai started making more, with designs ranging from handcuffs and birds to her famous sunflower seeds, with sales proceeds supporting global nonprofits. “An individual wearing a mask makes a gesture; a company wearing masks is fighting a deadly virus, ”Ai said.
David Hockney. Here is an artist who discovered a huge silver lining in the pandemic. The revered British painter crouched down in a 17th-century cottage in Normandy, France, when Europe began shutting down 18 months ago. For her, it marked the start of a long period of unprecedented productivity and creativity. While the pandemic has been difficult for many, for Hockney, 84, it may have enabled – and inspired – his latest drawings. And yet their theme is as far removed from sterile hospitals and vaccination laboratories as possible. Literally taking inspiration from the French Impressionists, the painted bucolic scenes include vibrant images of bright yellow daffodils and abundant apple and quince trees. Hockney’s hundreds of works of art provide a cheerful respite from the virus and a reminder of nature’s steadfastness, with one piece optimistically titled Remember they can’t cancel spring.
Artists who use science
Leonardo DeVinci. This Renaissance genius was at the forefront of the science and art of his time. The Italian painter is perhaps best known for his enigma Mona Lisa, but he was also interested in medical anatomy, engineering, and aviation, and used his drawing skills to explore them all. His designs include ideas for wetsuits, helicopters and parachutes, as well as weapons of war. Although many of his ideas never came to fruition, they showed da Vinci’s curiosity for the fields of physics and mathematics in addition to art. And he also used scientific elements in his paintings; the principles of linear perspective, ratio and geometry are all evident in his work. Vitruvian man, a well-known anatomical sketch by da Vinci, examines proportionality, while his pen and ink drawings of other parts of the body were true to life, as he dissected corpses to learn the secrets of the human body.
Lisa Nilsson. It is not surprising that this American artist trained as a medical assistant. The anatomy classes she took are evident in her works, much of which involves painstakingly detailed anatomical cross-sections made entirely from Japanese mulberry paper and the gilded pages of old books using a technique called quilling. It is believed that this technique was created by nuns in ancient Egypt and later refined during the Renaissance by monks and nuns seeking to make images from the pages of worn out bibles. Nilsson’s “tissue series” uses paper handkerchiefs to represent human tissue in its many shades of pink and red, from the brain to the female thorax. She uses images of parts of the human body dissected in medical texts as a source of inspiration.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. This renowned contemporary Mexican artist, whose works have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern in London, uses science and technology in many of his interactive works. One of his conceptual pieces, entitled Volumetric solar equation, uses more than 25,000 LED lights to “simulate turbulence, flares and visible spots on the surface of the sun.” Border tuner was an interactive piece that connected people on both sides of the US-Mexico border by displaying bridges of light controlled by the voices of participants. In another installation at the Guggenheim Museum, visitors were encouraged to speak into a computer, which then projected colors across the room that were linked to specific voice traits. Lozano-Hemmer also used heart rate sensors in his art.
Anicka Yi. This New York-based South Korean artist uses very unconventional materials and has science to thank for “mutating” much of her work. In 2015, she collected 100 bacterial swabs from friends, then asked a synthetic biologist to combine them for use as a paint in an attempt to answer the question, “What is feminism like?” Her work is often as fleeting as it is olfactory, and she has used human sweat, bacteria, and organic decay to create her disturbing installations. She also fermented kombucha into a leather-like material in some of her works and injected snails with the hormone oxytocin.
Science-driven artists of the future
Here are the winners of the very first Pfizer Design for Science competition. Participants were invited to represent scientific innovations or a patient’s experience in artistic design.
Syringes and DNA. In the recent Pfizer Design for Science competition, architecture student Julia Bohlen from Wisconsin used her entry to show how gene therapy can fight disease. His Escher-style digital drawing, rendered in shades of gray, shows how our DNA is like a puzzle, and his architectural background shines through as well. The work of Vina Domingo, another emerging talent who grew up in the Philippines but now lives in Idaho, borders on surrealism. Domingo’s work involves colored pencil on paper, with his award-winning entry in Design for Science showing a syringe tree – showing how vaccines boost our immunity and save the lives of humanity, our collective family tree.
Blood and bone. New York-based Hallye Webb is the daughter of two doctors, so she was keen to use her art to contribute to the world of medicine. Her Design for Science award-winning piece was even more personal because her father had recently undergone a bone marrow transplant. As a result, she focused her illustration on oncology by depicting a person lassoing a white blood cell. Laureate Michelle Fox’s entry was a series of mixed media paintings bordering on the abstract. This Texas-based artist has to thank science for saving her own eyesight – and essentially her career – and as such has been brought in to paint subjects from the world of science.
COVID-19 and trauma. Yingbo Qiao was a Beijing-based graphic designer before moving to San Francisco. For the Design for Science competition, he created a poster meant to help convince people to maintain social distancing during the pandemic. It represents the image of the now immediately recognizable spiked crown of the coronavirus in the form of a series of brightly colored optical illusions. The academic interest of Miranda L. Pelligrino is one that will likely be highly sought after in our present age of anxiety. Pelligrino is conducting research at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth on the impact of artistic creation and trauma on students and educators. As a person with chronic pain, her entry portrays an inflamed body, and she says patients like her “live hoping that science wins.”