Science in the Service of Art

Three artists who use science as their starting point.

Galapagos Rice-Rat from 'The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle'. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.
Galapagos Rice-Rat from ‘The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle’ This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.

My recent blog conversation (blogversation?) with Michele about the book The Where, The Why and The How stirred me up to think some more about the topic of science-flavored art. That book was full of delightful examples of artists using science as their inspiration; however no matter the topic or style of art, the illustrations never strayed from _illustrating_ the science they referenced. Some were more fanciful than others, but none questioned their basic intent.

Now, in literature there’s an entire genre dedicated to “science flavored” writing that ultimately doesn’t serve to illustrate any actual science concepts. I’m speaking of Science Fiction, of course, and while some early entries in the SF canon erred on the side of scientific accuracy, later practitioners of the genre took great liberties with the science, always ensuring that it served their literary goal and not vice versa. I was raised on a steady diet of Stanisław Lem books, and probably as a result tend not to demand much realism from my fiction.

On thinking about it, I’m rather surprised that the same is in general not true of art.

Sure there’s plenty of scientific art out there, and as an avid fan and occasional perpetrator of this genre, I couldn’t be happier about that. Perhaps the most obvious and accessible to wide audiences is the grand tradition of nature photography, which can range from wildlife to microphotography (check out the amazing work of Dr. Martin Oeggerli for your microphotography fix of the day). This branch of scientific art had its start in the gorgeous hand-illustrated journals of 19th century naturalists (think Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle). Beautiful and inspiring as they are, these are all outstanding examples of art firmly in the service of science.

So where is the art that, like Science Fiction in literature, takes it inspiration from science but then goes places that science can’t follow? I looked through the virtual drawers full of bookmarks that litter my browser, as well as art books at home with this criterion in mind, and came up with three rather neat examples of what I’m trying to get at.

The first comes from the artwork of Owen Schuh, whose drawings I discovered, like so many things these days, by browsing design blogs (interested even marginally in design? want a daily time-sink? consider as your one-stop shop). He draws on the visual language of diagrams to create diagram-like works of art. The critical aspect of these pieces is that they don’t _mean_ anything, scientifically. They’re not trying to illustrate a concept, illuminate a paradigm or reveal the hidden beauty of nature. They’re just art. And yet there’s a deep sense of science and order to them, that speaks deeply to the science nerd in me. They’re seeped in the visual traditions of scientific communication without communicating anything beyond themselves. That, to me, is a perfect embodiment of the chi of Science Fiction in the domain of art.

More obviously related to Science Fiction as we all know and love it is the bizarre, and bizarrely compelling Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini. In spite of it being a book with both writing and illustrations, It is not a work of literature in the normally understood fashion, as the writing is not in any language known to humankind. As the author relatively recently admitted, it’s a work of art in the purest sense. And it’s based obsessively on that storied tradition of naturalist illustration that I mentioned earlier. If you can’t get a hold of the real thing (something I’d highly recommend, by the way), at least do yourself a favor and run an image search on it. The desire to engage the reader’s imagination with a startling new world is what makes this feel like SF in the classic sense. But the lack of any context, narrative, or any other “Science Fictiony” tropes is what elevates this in my eyes to the level of genuine art unfettered by any obligations to the naturalist literature that so obviously inspired it.

For my third example, consider the work of Robert Hodgin. He eschews the traditional tools of the artist in favor of 3D simulations and animations that he industriously programs himself, using C++ with the help of specialized science & visualization libraries. He’s very interested in flocking simulations, and insofar as he illustrates that concept, he’s staying within the bounds of art in service to science. But then something funny happens, and in the middle of a flocking simulation he’ll switch the lights off and let the scene illuminate itself. The result is pure magic to my jaded eyes, and brings an unexpected dimension of artistic whimsy, with no good scientific reason behind it, to the otherwise faithful physics simulation. I had the pleasure of attending a lecture he gave last year at the Eyeo Festival, and surprised myself by being moved nearly to tears by this short film, inspired by the physics of early star formation. The key being that the physics served as an inspiration only. The actual piece does nothing to further your understanding, an in fact prevents it from being “useful” by constraining the simulation to a closed room. The resulting art relies on the emergent play of light and darkness, on the bleakly somber musical score (by Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson) and, for me, on the sheer philosophical meaninglessness of the constant churn of “stars” and “star forming matter” in that closed room. Oh yeah, it’s also heartrendingly beautiful, and that alone justifies its existence for me.

Once I started looking, I realized that a lot of the artists I like and have been drawn to take at least some of their inspiration from science. Even the most literal scientific illustrations succeed because of a pervading sense of design that elevates them past being just figures and diagrams. So there’s no hard line here. But there’s something special about the art mentioned here, in that it doesn’t let itself be subjugated by the science it’s influenced by. It’s art for art’s sake, and I’m happy to see it, sophisticated in its scientific grounding, yet free of any obligations.

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Maciek Smuga-Otto


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