Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Art of Science

The excitement in our children’s eyes when they looked through a large concave lens to see a furnished apartment transformed into the face of the Hollywood star of yesteryear Mae West said it all. Sure, they hadn’t heard of Mae West – after all she was in her prime in the early part of the 20th century, a time when even their grandparents were not born. But to see a lens reconfigure an odd assortment of furniture in a room with a shiny wooden floor into a glamorous face was enough to get them thinking about the mysteries of science.

We were at the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain, and the exhibit in question was the famous Mae West Room in the museum. It was created by the enigmatic, surrealist artist, Salvador Dali, who had a deep interest in science. As an education resource at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia says, the artist “described himself as a fish swimming between ‘the cold water of art and the warm water of science’”.

Art is such a fabulous way to raise public understanding of science, we thought, as we spent an entire afternoon at the museum mesmerised by the thought-provoking art of Dalí. One of the more striking paintings at the museum is the Galatea of the Spheres, an oil-on-canvas work that is, as the catalogue describes it, “the outcome of a Dalí impassioned by science and for the theories of the disintegration of the atom”. There is a sense of awe in this painting – the exuberance of scientific discovery bridled by a sense of its destructive potential captured by the disintegrating spheres that make up the model’s face.

Even before you enter the museum, what catches your eye in the courtyard outside is a sculpture offering Homage to Newton and a motif on the hydrogen atom. Amidst the array of masterpieces inside the museum are many that mesh art and science to create hidden images within paintings – the face of Abraham Lincoln embedded in what looks superficially to be the back of a woman in the nude. There are also precious art works that use holography and a range of optical illusions.

Art and Science have, of course, had close links for centuries. The Master of the Renaissance era, Leonardo da Vinci was both an artist and a scientist, combining extraordinary skills in painting and sculpting with a legendary prowess in mathematics and engineering. In recent times, there has been an increasing push to bring art and science together as is being done by the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT, for example. Also, as the Arthur I. Miller exhibition on Art & Science: Merging Art & Science to Make a Revolutionary New Art Movement in London says, ‘Artists are bringing science out of the laboratory’.

In an earlier blog, we talked about an innovative exhibition of art, sculpture, and narratives on the future at the ASU Art Museum in Tempe that featured ‘a collaborative interaction between art and science, society and academy, the grassroots and the elite.’
If you have examples of how art is enhancing public understanding of science anywhere in the world, do let us know.