Response to Jeanne: One Scientist’s Perspective

Werner Sun/ I would like to echo what Jeanne posted earlier.

Speaking as a scientist, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in my own appreciation of sci-art is not knowing how I am supposed to react to the scientific content. Scientific ideas are often very difficult to explain to laypersons and even other scientists. But for practitioners, every scientific idea holds a specific meaning, and it plays a particular role in the development of a field. The same is true of instruments, data, equations, etc. Every component is a brick in a Jenga tower.

So, when I see scientific material appearing verbatim in a piece of art, without an accompanying sense of exploration or transformation, my gut reaction is that the science is being taken out of context. A Jenga brick has been randomly plucked from the tower, and the edifice of thought surrounding it is being ignored. As an artist, I can recognize that this is not always the intention behind the work, but as a scientist, I must say I have a hard time approaching such work on its own merits.

An exception that proves the rule is the wonderful exhibition that Stephen Nowlin pointed us to. Instead of commenting on the science itself, Stephen’s practice poses questions about whether scientific artifacts can be seen as art, or whether art be found in the science. Note that the science he has chosen to highlight is of such import, and contains such mythic resonances, that it can easily shoulder these inquiries.

The discursiveness of science can be a barrier to its authentic use in art. Similar issues crop up in art based on a historical narrative or a piece of fiction — is it “just” an illustration, or is it “something more”? It seems to me that “something more” is achieved when the artist liberates the work from its ostensible subject. Guernica speaks universally in its own language, even though it depicts an actual event. And in Stephen’s example above, his entire exhibition is constructed as a microcosm to house the science, and the objects and displays placed within it are allowed to generate their own associations organically. So, I think if a work of sci-art manages to evoke a richly textured and convincing world unto itself, then the literal meaning of the science on which it is based can take its place as but one layer among many.

One Reply to “Response to Jeanne: One Scientist’s Perspective”

  1. short comment about the differences between the ‘language of art’ and the ‘language of science’.
    It might be obvious and for that reason overlooked: each individual artists use a visual language specific to them and we the viewer need to get to understand their unique language in order to ‘read’ and understand their artwork and what they are trying to ‘say’. Even fellow artists need to decipher the unique visual language that their fellow artists use.
    Scientists (and indeed the who science community) use a universally understood language. As such, scientists understand each other’s writings, terminology, visual imagery, annotations etc immediately. There are descriptive standards which facilitates precise understanding.

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