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Art & Science: Marriage or Illicit Liaison

To take a one week course with David Peat

F. David Peat

A text only version of this essay is available to download.

This essay, discussing the relationship between art and science, was written for the catalogue that accompanies "Dark Matter: A Visual Exploration of the New Physics", an exhibition jointly held at the Turnpike Gallery, Manchester and the Harris Gallery, Preston from 7 March - 25 April, 1998.

Artists have always been sensitive to the culture in which they are immersed and in the present scientific age it is inevitable that they should be aware of scientific debate. But what exactly are the underpinnings to the suddenly fashionable topic of "art and science"? Considerable claims have been made for this marriage (or perhaps it is more of an illicit liaison?) but how far can connections be made, how valid are they and when do they degenerate into empty metaphor and loose analogues?

My experience, over the last few years, of talking with artists about their work has convinced me that some deep and genuine connections do exist and are currently being explored by individual artists. Admittedly the traffic often seems to flow in one direction, from science into art, but the current investigations within the framework of art and its practice, will, I believe, have an, albeit subtle, influence upon the ambiance in which science is carried out. Artists are avid experimenters whose play with technique and material forces them to question limits, boundaries and received assumptions. The way they work, and the questions they ask, can lead to unexpected conjunctions. Everything, from the new colors exploited by the Impressionists to cyber space, zero gravity, biofeedback and the conceptual foundations of quantum theory, is fair game for art. Artists are also concerned with investigating the ambiance of the world, both in terms of its surfaces and structures as well as the space of ideas in which they swim.

Art is able to make manifest that which is suspended in the imagination, or exists only at some liminal stage of realization. The earliest cave art, the varying appearances of a halo, the gold of the sky of heaven, the nature of the sublime, the inner experience of movement, the appearance of pure sensation, as well as contemporary work involving abstract notions of chaos theory, quantum theory and cosmology, are all examples in which artists have attempted to give form to our conceptual world. The painter Patrick Heron, for example, argues that painting's prime function is to dictate what the world looks like. For Heron, painting supplies us with the visual order of the world, with the implication that a change in the paradigm of art is a change in human consciousness.

Scientists for their part may appear to lie outside such a debate for they work in the language of mathematics, pure ideas and distant abstractions. Yet at some point they too demand visualizations and conceptual models. The philosophical debate surrounding quantum theory revolves around Neils Bohr's claim that physics has reached the limits of visualization, model making, and indeed of language, so that it is no longer permissible to discuss the nature of any "underlying reality". At the deepest levels of theory, art and science begin to face similar challenges.

It is here that the excitement begins, as artists, though the medium of their work, discuss and deconstruct the nature of the image, the ontology of an art work, the significance of the context in which a work is place, the role of the spectator as participator, the nature of evidence and ephemeral event, the limits to the art experiment, the liminality of matter, the role of postmodernistic theory and the function of beauty and aesthetic judgment. But these are the very same questions that are being asked by scientists. Matter has dissolved into patterns of energy, abstract symmetries and fluctuations of the quantum vacuum. Superstrings and the Big Bang take on a postmodern condition of being theories about theories about theories in which aesthetic judgment has become the prime yardstick.

And so art and science map out the same territory from their respective disciplines. It is here, as the investigations of art and science mutually inform each other, that something deeply creative is possible, not simply in the work of individual artists, but for the whole artistic paradigm, and in a way that may ultimately enrich the scientific field.

"Worm Hole"
Michael Petry

One of the most revolutionary concepts to have emerged from physics is that the universe is essentially participatory. In quantum theory the act of observation determines how a quantum even will present itself. Indeed, quantum particles cannot even be said to "possess" properties in the absence of their observation. It is the presence of the observer, the context of the measurement, that determines how a quantum process will manifest. This is exactly the sensation of engaging Michael Petry's "wormhole". The experience of the work can only take place according to the disposition of the human observer - to move to one side is to loose the work. But here it is almost as if Petry has subverted the situation by "measuring" or fixing the spectator, rather than the other way around. In doing so and in entering the Dark and White rooms Petry is also exploring the notion of duality and binary opposition that is inherent in the scientific approach but which also spills over into daily life.

This exhibition draws upon many of the different threads artists are pursuing in their enticement with science. Penny McCarthy, Diane Main and Stephen Hughes reveal the sensual and tactile that is so much a part of scientific data, observation and discovery. The validity of this, and so much other work in this exhibition, is that it makes apparent the seductive relationship to nature, first experienced in childhood, that causes some of us to pursue a scientific path.

It is too easy to conceive of science as practiced in the abstract and forget the aesthetic, and deeply physical, sensations experienced when doing science, experiencing an insight, or discovering just why something fits and that a particular equation must work. Albert Einstein used to squeeze a rubber ball when thinking about the equations of space-time because the muscular tensions in his arm seemed directly related to his thought processes. Wolfgang Pauli pictured his search for a unified quantum theory as a battle between God and the Devil - symmetry and antisymmetry. He also suggested that physics must come to terms with what he called "the irrational", and the "subjective side" of matter. David Bohm experienced subtle internal senses of combined movements which transformed themselves into mathematical equations. He believed that, because his body was part of the matter of the universe, physics should be accessible though a form of physical and mental introspection.

Art and science are also concerned with form and structure. It was, for example, the lifelong struggle of Cezanne to discover a rigorous new structure for painting in the wake of the experiments of the impressionists. This same theme of structure is found in contemporary biology and physicist. The biologist is concerned with questions of the relationship between form and function, with the widely varying aspects of form, both in their evolution and in their stability from generation to generation. Chaos theory concerned itself with the self-organization of form, while sub-atomic matter appears to be structured according to fundamental symmetries. In several of the works this exhibition also comments on form, its depiction and emergence. Susan Derge's gentle images, for example, demonstrate the way physical form manifests itself out of underlying dynamical processes.

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