When science meets art
Four artists explain how science informs and inspires their work.
“THE GREATEST SCIENTISTS are artists as well,” said Albert Einstein.
For as long as artistic expression has existed, it has benefited from interplay with scientific principles – be it experimentation with new materials or the discovery of techniques to render different perspectives. Likewise, art has long contributed to the work and communication of science.
We asked four outstanding artists to comment on their work and its relationship to science. “Science is my muse,” replied Xavier Cortada, who marked the discovery of the ‘God particle’ with a set of triumphal banners. The same can be said for the other three: Suzanne Anker renders small worlds in petri dishes, Lia Halloran explores serendipity in science, and Daniel Zeller translates images from alien realms in his own artistic language.
Employed as a container for working with fungi, bacteria and even embryos, the glass dish named after bacteriologist Jules Petri is not only a fundamental of laboratory research: it has become a cultural icon.
In my Remote Sensing series I use the Petri dish to juxtapose microscopic and macroscopic worlds. The title refers to new digital technologies that can picture places too toxic or inaccessible to visit.
The fabrication of this piece began with 2D digital photographs, which were then converted into 3D virtual models. This petri dish with its luxuriant growth emerged from the 3D printer.
These micro-landscapes offer the viewer a top-down topographic effect assembled by zeros and ones. Each configuration of these works takes the geometry of a circle, inspired by the Petri dish, and crosses the divide between the disciplines of art and science.
The ‘bio art’ of Suzanne Anker explores the intersection of art and the biological sciences. Based in New York, Anker works in a variety of traditional and experimental mediums ranging from digital sculpture and installation to large-scale photography and plants grown under LED lights. Her work has been exhibited at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Pera Museum in Istanbul, and the International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Anker is co-author of The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age (2004) and co-editor of Visual Culture and Bioscience (2008).
The 18th-century French astronomer Charles Messier set his telescopic sights on the grand prize of finding a lonely, wandering comet. He ended up amassing an astronomical inventory filled with galaxies, clusters and nebulae. A catalogue of 110 objects is credited to his journals and drawings.
Deep Sky Companion is a series of 110 pairs of paintings and photographs of night sky objects drawn from the Messier catalogue.
These works are about discovery and all the things we find when we are not seeking them. It relates to my own challenging first stabs at observing the night sky. In college I was given a small Celestron telescope for Christmas. Observing the Orion Nebula and nearby galaxies seemed to create a fold in time between Messier and myself.
I would imagine his sessions observing through his telescope and the drawings he made to classify the natural world and make sense of the unknown above him.
Each painting in the Deep Sky Companion series was created in ink on semi-transparent paper, which was then used as a negative to create the positive photographic equivalent using standard black-and-white darkroom printing. This process connects to the historical drawings by Messier, here redrawn and then turned back into positives through a photographic process mimicking early glass-plate astrophotography.
Lia Halloran is an artist and academic based in Los Angeles. At Chapman University, in California’s Orange County, she teaches painting as well as courses that explore the intersection of art and science. Her art often makes use of scientific concepts and explores how perception, time and scale inform the human desire to understand the world, and our emotional and psychological place within it. She has held solo exhibitions in New York, Miami, Boston, Los Angeles, London, Vienna and Florence. Her work is held in public collections that include the Guggenheim in New York.
I was very grateful to have the Cassini mission as a launching point for this drawing. (Cassini’s 20-year mission ended in September 2017 when it crashed into Saturn.) There are obvious reasons Titan is so appealing: Saturn’s largest moon has an atmosphere, deserts and seas – it is an alien world with some characteristics we can relate to.
The probe generated so much fascinating source material it was difficult to choose any single viewpoint, but there was something particularly intriguing about the image of Titan I finally settled on. Greyscale imagery naturally lends itself to broad interpretation, and the radar-mapping method suited my curiosity and my process; it seems to relay its subject as somehow simultaneously familiar and completely alien. Titan’s surface became a scaffold on which I could build and explore. The relative ambiguity of the source image allowed me wide latitude to interpret the moon as a stand-in for any not-yet-discovered world or landscape, while still allowing it to be grounded in the recognisable projection of topography.
The Cassini mission was a truly amazing foray into the unknown. We are greatly enriched by the knowledge it collected. My work is but a humble homage to our immediate neighbourhood – once so far away and now a little bit closer – and to what is yet to be discovered on many frontiers.
Daniel Zeller is an illustrator and painter based in New York. His work, inspired by informative images and maps forged by scientific inquiry, resembles microscopic views of intricate cellular structures and macroscopic perspectives of satellite panoramas. He seeks to push the compositional boundaries of a limited range of media, working with ink, acrylic and graphite on paper. His works are part of permanent collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In 2013 I was invited to see the planet’s largest science experiment at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva. My art wound up honouring the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the Higgs boson, the particle that imbues all the others with mass. Five banners depict the five experiments used to make the discovery.
Identifying the Higgs required the most complex machine humans have ever built, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The particle accelerator shoots protons at almost the speed of light along a 27 km tunnel. Every second 40 million protons collide with one another. These high-energy collisions make new particles and new mass.
The LHC’s detectors did not directly measure the Higgs.
They measured the paths taken by the photons, quarks and electrons created in the collisions. The curvature of the paths revealed the charge and momentum of the particles, and the size of the signal their energy. The data told scientists there was another particle – the Higgs boson – produced in the collisions.
Let me tell you why these experiments were so important. When physicists first came up with the Standard Model of physics, a theory to describe the forces and particles of nature, they couldn’t figure out how to give those particles mass.
This was quite a problem, because particles with no mass would move at the speed of light and be unable to slow down enough to form atoms. Without atoms the universe would be very different.
In the 1960s British physicist Peter Higgs and others independently came up with a theory to solve that problem. Just as marine creatures move in water, all particles in the universe move in a fundamental energy field – now commonly known as the Higgs field. As particles travel through the field, their intrinsic properties generate more or less mass – much as the properties of an animal create different degrees of drag as it moves through water. Think of a barracuda and a manatee. The sleeker barracuda is going to move faster.
Mathematically, the theory required the existence of a particle representing the ‘excited state’ of the field. This new particle – dubbed the Higgs boson – would be to the Higgs field what photons are to the electromagnetic field. Finding the particle involved scientists from 182 universities and institutes in 42 countries. On 4 July 2012, half a century after it was first postulated, CERN scientists announced its discovery.
The detection itself was intricate and multilayered, and so were the artworks I created. Stained glass references the LHC as a modern-day cathedral that helps us understand the universe and shape our new world view. The oil painting technique honours those who came before us, the repetition of motifs across the five works celebrates internationalism, and rendering the work as ‘banners’ marks this as a monumental event.
Most importantly, the background for the banners honours the scientific collaboration. It is composed of words from the pages of 383 joint publications and the names of more than 4,000 scientists, engineers and technicians. With this piece I wanted to create art from the very words, charts, graphs and ideas of this coalition of thinkers.
It was a supremely important moment for humanity. I wanted the art to mark that event at the exact location where the experiment took place. These five banners hang at the exact location of the LHC, where the Higgs boson was discovered. That is where a scientific theory crystallised into a proven truth.
It is my hope these banners will inspire future generations of physicists to continue to move humanity forward.
Xavier Cortada is a painter based in Miami, Florida. His art regularly involves collaboration with scientists. As well as his art installation for CERN, he has worked with a population geneticist on a project exploring our ancestral journey out of Africa 60,000 years ago, with a molecular biologist to synthesise DNA from participants visiting his museum exhibit, and with botanists on eco-art projects. He estimates his installation at the South Pole using a moving ice sheet as an instrument to mark time will be completed in 150,000 years.