Discover the magical world where science and art intersect.
by Caitlin Burke
The history of the intersection between science and art, unlike any other history, has no beginning. On a macro scale, the closest approximation we have to the length of the relationship is the estimated age of the universe or 13.8 billion years. On a micro scale, we might assign the origin of life on earth as the demarcation. After all, the act of cell division is in many ways a kind of performance art – each cell moves in accordance with premeditated steps and is subject to the force of time, culminating in a beautiful ephemeral dance.
For that matter, any interplay between definitive structures and chance represents the push and pull of art and science. The leaves on a tree branch are biologically and anatomically the same, but they grow to be different shapes, sizes, and colors. The universe, acting as artist, manipulates molecular structures like paint on a canvas, creating masterpieces as small as a strain of bacteria and as large as the planet Saturn. Thus, when looking to map the history of art and science, we are presented with more questions than answers.
However, to attribute a date to the introduction of science to the history of art is a much more manageable task. From the beginning of the history of art up until the late 1800s, many artists focused on replicating our natural world. The principles of science, introduced by the work of theorists such as Leon Battista Alberti, created a method by which artists could perform this task. Rules such as proportion, light, and perspective gave artists boundaries for reconstructing our environment.
As Alberti explains in his treatise, On Painting, “Painting is divided into three parts; these divisions we have taken from nature. First, in seeing a thing, we say it occupies a place. Then, looking at it again, we understand that several planes of the observed body belong together. Finally, we determine more clearly the colors and qualities of the planes. Therefore, painting is composed of circumscription, composition, and reception of light.” Alberti, a prolific writer during the Renaissance, dictated with science a means for accurate natural representation, the result of which took art from stiff and disproportionate pieces such as Cimabue’s Maestà di Santa Trinita to balanced, realistic artworks such as Botticelli’s Primavera. Paintings became windows into other worlds and sculptures transformed into living beings with the help of science.
In the 20th century, science took on a different role within art. Due to the invention of photography in the 19th century, the artistic need to recreate our natural world diminished, freeing up an opportunity to focus on ideas and the self. As artists became less concerned with natural representation and more concerned with conveying feelings or ideas, they turned to science for research regarding mental rather than physical matters.
Surrealist artists, for example, focused on revealing the unconscious in their work, a direct reaction to Freud’s arguments on psychology. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which posits that there is a kind of space-time fabric within which planets and stars are woven, influenced our perception of time, motion, and space, the impact of which can be seen in the shattered perspectives of Cubist art. Conceptual artists such as Jenny Holzer and Sol LeWitt eschewed images with which we are familiar in favor of thought provoking statements and sculptures, prioritizing concepts over aestheticism. Artists enjoyed some of the most significant scientific events during the 20th century, and the art they created mirrored this dynamism.
Today, science is a part of our daily lives in a way that it has never been before. We are faced with science every time we search the web. Our mobile phones have become our extra limbs, without which we would not know how to function. Because we have now become closer to science through technology, the relationship between art and science must change once again.
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The modern relationship between science and art takes on many different shapes and sizes. The most obvious form of this connection is digital art. Over the past two and a half decades, some of the world’s largest museums have celebrated the world of digital art. The Whitney Museum launched artport in 2002, a hub for online commissions and new media artworks, and the Guggenheim launched its first online exhibition in 2015, titled Azone Futures Market.
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Artists such as Philip David Stearns, JODI, Sara Lundy, Andy Lomas, and Michael Demers, manipulate and play with technology to create artistic dysfunction. For example, in Demers’ The Ghost of Vannevar Bush Hacked My Server, he manages to take away the typical function of an internet browser, to provide information, and replace it with a kind of eerie game. Pieces like Phillip David Stearns’ Digital Nomads 001 show us that the technology we rely upon so heavily can be melded and morphed like clay for a sculpture. Technology provides a new material with which artists can play and dream.
Outside of digital media, data has also served to inspire artworks. Data visualization expert Aaron Koblin creates masterpieces of color and light which demonstrate facts and data. Artist Laurie Frick, likewise, uses materials like cloth and leather to represent data sets. Her work, Time Blocks, shows a data set related to time via blocks of wood and color. The artists Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, whose work was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, spent a full year mailing data visualizations about their personal lives on postcards, achieving a beautiful collection of artworks. Data visualization art speaks about the information age in a different way than digital art does, but the message is the same. Both data visualization and digital art show how technology and science are now inseparable from our lives.
In reaction to technology, some artists are taking an even more literal approach to expressing the growing link between science and art. BioArt, or art that uses biology as inspiration, is a method by which artists can address the link between science and art directly. Anicka Yi, in her 2017 show at the Guggenheim, Life is Cheap, explored with a team of molecular biologists and forensic chemists, the world of Petri dishes and bacteria. In the exhibition, Yi displayed strains of bacteria gathered from Chinatown and Koreatown in Manhattan and placed them on tiles to grow within a diorama. Artist Suzanne Anker, a pioneer in the bio art field, who was also one of our judges for The Chelsea International Fine Art Competition, draws similar inspiration for her works. Anker’s Biota pulls objects from the sea and places them on display, calling attention to the beauty of our natural world.
The artworks of Agora artist Dan Aug offer a fusion of science and mystery, where utopian futurism meets the constructive historical praxis of ancient Egyptian architecture. The artist also characterizes and incorporates astronomical and cosmological knowledge into his artworks.
Without the growth of technology, bio art may not have received any attention, but the renewed combination of art and science spurs a renewed interest in bio art, as well.
The history of art and science is long and nearly impossible to capture. But the impact science has had on art can clearly be traced from the Renaissance to our modern day. Technology has made it more difficult than ever to ignore science, and art has responded to this phenomena accordingly. Art gives us some sort of reprieve from technology, using its shapes and forms in order to show us that tech is no different from any other medium. As with painting and sculpture, digital art, data visualization art, and bio art, illuminate a society’s developments, forcing us to learn more about ourselves as a species.
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Caitlin Burke is a creative technologist with a background in the history of art. When she is not building and designing digital products, she writes about the intersection of art, culture, and technology. She lives and works in New York.