Art and Science: Opposites Attract I

John Haber
in New York City

Ruisdael's Sluice Gates and Produced at Eyebeam

Mark Dion, Michal Rovner, and Jessica Bronson

I had finished my first public lecture on art, and I was still on a high. An artist might attribute it to so many majestic visions of the world, from Giotto on down, a scientist to endorphins. Either way, a questioner brought me down quickly.

She had noticed my education, in physics. How did I get all the way from there to art history? She had asked a good question—a question about more than just myself. What, if anything, do science and art have to do with one another? If they stand only as polar opposites, do opposites attract? Jacob van Ruisdael's View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds (Kunsthaus, Zurich, c. 1665)

More than a few artists feel the attraction. In the first part of this two-part essay, I shall ask why they might. I will first suggest multiple connections and disconnections between art and science, beginning with a retrospective of Jacob van Ruisdael. A second part will then consider some lively contemporary examples—in "Produced at Eyebeam 2005," Mark Dion's Curiosity Shop, and Jessica Bronson's Like Transient Day. (Follow-ups take the story into spring 2006, with the space between still life and science experiment, thanks in part to Olafur Eliasson.) Together, they illustrate the interdisciplinary practices of new-media artists. They also help show how metaphors and value judgments accrue to science, art, and culture in the first place.

Practice, practice

I had come more or less prepared to talk about European and American painting, but not about this—about me. I stammered something about my last year in college. I recalled myself then, captivated by Erwin Panofsky and his Early Netherlandish Painting. I remembered, too, the challenge of friends back then, immersed in some truly puzzling abstract art and poring over the very first issue of October magazine. I did not mention my happy discovery that galleries did not charge, that museums had free hours, that the East Village extended past First Avenue, and that Soho had a room filled with nothing but dirt. More important, I did not answer the real question, of why the contrast between art and science exists and whether it matters.

Appropriately enough, I had been lecturing on realism, on which both disciplines clearly have something to say. More particularly, both have a fascination with phenomena—the look and feel of things. For both, too, the phenomena begin with their own working methods. However, both have impatience with the facts, apart from a representation of the world and an understanding of it. Last, both develop by investigating the limits of a given understanding, and the results often run contrary to common sense. While one sometimes characterizes art as inherently unique, science has necessarily reproducible, Modernism's and Postmodernism's assaults on the originality of a work of art may have driven the poles even further together.

Of course, artists need not care about math and science or art and mathematics, just as not every scientist need display the extraordinary literacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who responded to the first atomic tests with thoughts of George Herbert's poetry and Shiva, destroyer or worlds. They did not need scientific foundations in order to take up oils. They simply learned and extended their craft. They did not need the optics of color to introduce linear perspective, and it would have made little sense to speak about art and physics before modern physics. A growing humanism had elevated not just observation, but mathematics. One spoke of natural philosophy, very much in a philosophical tradition, and it contributed to the growing stature of the artist.

And yet, here, too, art parallels science. Scientific inquiry, which took its modern shape soon after the Renaissance, also developed from practical activity on the one hand and philosophy on the other—the combination often called natural history. Besides, if artists have had to manipulate rather than simply observe reality, science, too, required a shift from pure observation to experiment on nature. A belief in two cultures could boil down to no more than bad years in math class—or, conversely, an unfortunate reverence for the received authority of both science and religion.

So far so good. I myself feel more at home with words, equations, and pictures alike than with names and dates, while Rosemarie Trockel just wants specimens for her art. In America, the real two cultures might lie in a culture of inquiry—scientific, artistic, political, or otherwise—and a culture of apathy. And indeed, like Oppenheimer, most scientists necessarily began as bright students and good readers. However, like god, art or science lies in the details, and their details rather quickly diverge. The idea of two cultures persists for a reason.

Things worth doing take practice, and practices do not always lend themselves to simple borrowings. And yet that, too, points to a flaw in the myth of two cultures, the idea that each has a single praxis. When art turns to science, it has its own purposes, in the plural, and each comes with its own dangers. To get at them, let me begin with an example. You may think of this artist as a premature Romantic rather than a cool scientist, but that makes the case all the more interesting.

Natural and human histories

Consider a recent retrospective of Jacob van Ruisdael, whose whitewater, trees, and towns suggest something of his range as an observer of nature and humanity. He studies the bark of trees and the current in a shallow stream. He can show the weather changing within a single painting. Like modern lab director, he delegates some details, such as the depiction of animals, to specialists. He also keeps up with the latest in engineering, comparing the passage of water over and under different sluice gates.

Compared to his predecessors, he also imposes a striking unity on each scene. He heightens a scene's central trees or hills. He provides a clearer path between light and the ground, often artificially lowering the horizon. Further suggesting a superhuman point of view, he depicts hunters half hidden in the forest or bare trees towering above decaying castles. All these show the perspective of science, not just in its actual seventeenth-century products, but also in its emphasis on breadth, accuracy, unity, and clarity.

However, even the apparent subordination of civilization to nature has a human purpose. It describes a new nation, strongly identified with its landscape. The Dutch derived their freedom from their command of the seas. They derived their industry, such as the bleaching of fabrics, from natural processes. They had very much their own notion of art and planet earth.

Nature's dominance speaks to cycles that allow rebirth for society as well, including the tale of Dutch independence. For a nineteenth-century artist, a fallen castle would stand for loss—perhaps nostalgia for a golden age or a lesson in human overreaching. For the Dutch, however, it testifies to endurance during a century of war against Spain, and the tree trunks sprouting new branches emphasize the promise of the future. And then there comes the artist himself. The uncanny point of view may belong to nature itself, but also to a painter able to reinvent what he observed. No wonder the tall skies, impeccably even horizon, and rectangular patches of agriculture and clearing make one think of abstract art now.

As one last twist of the knife, Ruisdael's manipulations of time and space leave one aware of what he cannot control, in a world or indeed an image that he must ultimately leave behind. In his art, every mapping of nature includes unseen presences. One can sense them in the encroaching darkness of his later forest scenes, so distant from the crisply drawn leaves, cool colors, and diagonal compositions that he learned from his uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael. Perhaps that is why the Met preferred the older artist for its "Age of Rembrandt."

Ruisdael allows nature to subsume humanity, human history to incorporate nature, the artist to stand above human nature, and the viewer to search, sometimes in vain, for signs of each. Can one still sort out the parallels to science, without reducing artists to laboratory rats? Again, one must first see art's scientific practices in the plural, along with the danger of each.

Between content and meaning

First, art can draw on science for subject matter, as with science fiction or with Ruisdael's waterwheels and bleaching factories. That approach can learn from—and turn a critical eye on—another picture of experience. It can also empty the science of its content, as with Gabriel Orozco and his search for marine life, it recalls the old complaint about representational painting as mere illustration. Do those cute little creatures borrowing deep into remote spaces mean anything at all? Do all those dancing chromosome pairs really amount to a portrait? Sometimes, as when Anne Gilman movingly incorporates a bone scan in one drawing as a "last, full-length portrait" of her father, but sometimes not.

Second, art can aspire to the study of nature, as with Ruisdael's fields and skies or motion studies for Harold Edgerton. One hardly knows where to begin, but one can continue to celebrate John Constable for his cloud studies, Claude Monet for his analysis of color, and countless others for analysis of human society even now. Leonardo da Vinci encompasses all this, with his mechanical devices, his fluid curls of hair and water, and his fascination with human types. Whatever else one may say about them all, one must speak of them as observers. And here, too, lies a danger—of mistaking a picture for reality.

Third, art can further rely on science to refine its methods and to further its spirit of experiment, as with Buckminster Fuller and his Dymaxion House of with Ruisdael's increasing command of perspective, light, and shadow. Painting has been invoking the science of vision and the truth in painting for ages, whether with the convex mirror, planar mirrors as lens, the camera obscura, Post-Impressionist points of light, or color charts before Donald Batchelor. Modern sculpture and Minimalism add industrial processes and products to the mix, and photography has its own complicated chemistry and optics, whose power and limits Gerhard Richter has so patiently defined. New-media artists know a great deal more about applied science than I do. However, all this has tempted many a viewer to treat art as a straightforward copy after nature. It has also tempted formalist critics to mistake a medium for its materials.

Finally, art can look to science as itself a representation, one rich in accuracy, authority, and openness to experience, as with Ruisdael's layered representation of nature, humanity, a nation, and his own art. When William Butler Yeats fell for his wife's contacts with the spirit world, he asked the spirits why they had come. They replied, to bring you metaphors for poetry. Science can bring the same thing, as when Anya Gallaccio plants a tree, finding insight into the fragility of ecosystems and human lives. Yet this approach, too, can reduce science or art to a pointless literalism, much as when popular culture appropriates terms like uncertainty and relativity. Should one equate realism with a lesson in optics, Rembrandt with a vision defect, photography with a passive imprint, or digital art with a science experiment, one has mistaken art and science for the nature they bring alive.

At their best, the four approaches do not exclude one another, and a show curated by Mark Dion has reflected on them all. They cannot, any more than art can fairly separate content, practice, form, and meaning. One may even take this as the distinguishing mark of art compared to science. It always makes meaning, even when it claims transparency for its window on the world. At the same time, it deals with the limits of any artist's ability to confine meaning—or any image's. In science, both functions of human intervention have to remain implicit, the model and its limits, so that other scientists can build on past results and make them obsolete.

Art like this allows the parallels between art and science to intertwine, but it also does not reduce any one of these purposes to another. In the second part of this article, I shall look at three recent exhibitions of contemporary art that do not fall for the naturalistic fallacy. The exhibitions, at the close of 2005 and the start of 2006, really do bring alive each of my four points—the history, observations, tools, and metaphors of science—and how they shade into one another. They range from the handmade texture of premodern art and science to the digital age, from Romantic poetry to twentieth-century newsreels, and from the origins of science to the depletion of rainforests. Apparently, science still has enough metaphors of nature and culture to spread liberally around the gallery.

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Jacob van Ruisdael's retrospective ran at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through February 5, 2006. The second part of this two-part article will look at related exhibitions for the winter of 2006, including "Produced at Eyebeam," Mark Dion's "Curiosity Shop," Michal Rovner, and Jessica Bronson's "Like Transient Day." Related articles have given particular attention to science and Postmodernism, the materials and methods of art, when photography can deceive, how digital art can lie, how medicine and mathematics approach art, high-res scans and Leonardo, and Christina McPhee with digital landscapes.


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