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On Science and Aesthetics (Catalogue essay for Cross Sections)

Catalogue essay for Catherine Wagner exhibition, Cross Sections

When a conceptual artist presents an object for our consideration it often provokes a series of questions. Conceptual art invites us to move beyond the immediate visual experience and consider, for example, the particular social context out of which an image emerges or to which it refers. Therefore, when Catherine Wagner turns to science, in her new series of pictures made at the Weizmann Institute, I, as a scientist, sit up and take notice. I find myself asking: What is going on here? What are these images all about? What are they saying about science? What are they saying about ourselves? After all, science traditionally prides itself upon its objectivity. The particular social background, belief systems and values of its practitioners are normally considered to be irrelevant to the design of experiments and the creation of hypotheses. On the other hand, the various concepts generated by modern science and the stories it tells us about matter and life, not to mention all its associated technology—have an enormous influence on our increasingly global culture and the images of who we are. It is at this juncture that Wagner invites us to explore the myriad cultural contexts in which the activities of science take place1.

In her previous work, Wagner arrived at the building site, classroom, home, or laboratory armed with her camera to create striking images through careful staging, thoughtful lighting, and masterful composition. With these new photographs however, she was not the one to ‘press the shutter’; rather she made use of technologies that allow scientists to create high-definition images at the cellular (for example, magnetic resonance imaging and the scanning electron microscope). In some cases she took the original digital data that had been generated in the laboratory as her raw material. In other words, the site of her raw material has shifted from particular geographical locales to digital data that has been created in the laboratory.

Wagner’s new series of photographs begin at the same starting point as that of the medical and biological researchers at the Weizmann Institute—a file of digital data. From this file, both, in their own ways, go on to create images that are dictated by the meanings and values associated with their respective work. Having said this, it would be far too easy to place Wagner, the artist, on one side of a fence and the scientists who collaborated with her on the other. It is overly simplistic to view Wagner’s approach as no more than an act of deconstruction by appropriating scientific images and technologies with the aim of questioning and even subverting the goals and methodology of science. The more I look at her images and think about what she has been doing, the more I see a complex dance in which art and science are constantly crossing each other’s boundaries. The result is an enriching experience that invites us to reflect on the values and aesthetics of science, the images it is capable of producing, and what they reveal about life and its potential for further development.

The Scientific Image

The use of imagery in science, and of extending what can be seen with the naked eye, has a long tradition. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, Galileo made use of the mariner’s telescope to scan the heavens. His observations indicated the existence of sunspots and of craters on the moon. Antoine von Leeuwenhoek, in the second half of the eighteenth century, ground lenses with such precision that he was able to observe ‘very little animacules’—bacteria and protozoa—in drops of rainwater, saliva and pond water.

Such observations gave rise to a new vision of the nature of life and the universe. Yet they were not without controversy. Leeuwenkoek’s observations challenged the prevailing theory of the spontaneous generation of life. Likewise, Galileo’s claim for the existence of spots on the sun was considered akin to blasphemy. Indeed, it was argued at the time that his observations were no more than corruptions produced by his imperfect instrument.

From that time forward, a certain suspicion existed that when science moves beyond the immediate experience of the senses, through the use of instruments, it is in a certain way creating the very world it is attempting to observe. Ironically, this very point was made again with the advent of quantum theory when it was shown that the results of observations are—to a certain degree—the creation of the act of observation.

During the twentieth century, science extended its technical abilities to produce images. It expanded the range of frequencies used in image making into the infrared, microwave, radio, ultraviolet and x-ray regions. The wave-line nature of the electron was exploited in the scanning electron microscope. Add to this list magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission topography (PET) and the use of ultrasound and note that such images are not merely passive records but constructed, processed, and enhanced by computers.

Scientific images are conceptual tools. They are methods for summing up vast amounts of data. In this sense there is a continuous spectrum between the scientific image (photograph) and the diagram, graph or display. In each case, these fabricated visual materials allow complex processes and structures to become immediately accessible to the mind. Just think how much more understandable is a graph, diagram or computer display than a table of raw data. Indeed, the scientific diagram segues naturally into the scientific image. For a long time the results of astronomical and microscopic observations were more faithfully recorded through drawing. The trained observer who has studied many similar examples of an organism, for example, gradually learns both how to see and what to see. The eye and mind work together with the hand to create a representation of the very essence of a structure. In such a representation all that is contingent and incidental has been stripped away to display, in the most graphic manner, underlying structures, shapes and relationships. These scientific diagrams were once considered to be more faithful that the split-second glance of the camera. For a time Gray’s Anatomy resisted the use of medical photography.

The art historian Martin Kemp argues that the acceptance of the revolutionary ideas of Copernicus and Kepler on the nature of the solar system was made possible through the use of three-dimensional drawing and mechanical models2. In this case ‘seeing’ is believing. Visualization was also the issue faced by biophysicists Crick and Watson when they attempted to move beyond raw x-ray data to a three-dimensional model—in this case, something physically built in their laboratory using of stands and clamps—of the DNA molecule. Likewise, data from distant parts of the universe is gathered by a wide variety of technical devices to provide us with constructed images of the heavens. The development of powerful high-speed computers enables us to create images of such things as shock waves, the movement of weather patterns, and fractal growth. As with an act of art making, scientific images bear a curious ontology lying between external object and constructed realty. In this way, science resonates with Wagner’s approach of conceptual photography.

Science boasts that its empirical approach transcends cultural constructs and subjective values. Many scientists hotly resist the introduction of any element of cultural relativism in their field. Yet in doing so, they forget that the sorts of questions we ask of the natural world, and the very ways we ask these questions (and the tools of investigation we use) are ultimately the products of culture. The ‘truths’ revealed and the images produced by science reflect the values held by society. It is here, through exploration of the nature of scientific imagery, that Wagner acts as a cultural commentator to reveal the social and subjective elements that are contained with the scientific approach.

In one of her earlier pieces –86 Degree Freezers the viewer is given a particularly visceral look into a medical freezer unit. These images have an immediate impact and speak of the isolation of scientific samples within a cold so deep as to be beyond anything normally experienced on earth. Yet as we read the accompanying text our visual experience becomes tempered by the knowledge that these are tissue samples from patients who have suffered from AIDS or breast cancer.

Some of Wagner’s current imagery is similarly loaded with associations to actual experiments. She shows us cells in the process of division, a symbol of new life born out of a single fertilized cell. That seemingly edible fruit is none other than a balancing organ. A sculptural petal shape changes its association when we realize that its sharp, ripping tip is that of a shark’s tooth. Yet below the tooth enamel is a structure almost like bleached, charred wood; broken into many fissures. It is a tooth removed and isolated from its owner. We cannot help being reminded of childhood when we put our own recently fallen tooth under the pillow in hope of a reward from the tooth fairy. It was symbol of growing up, a rite of passage and a form of separation. In turn we recall that science seeks to isolate and frame its objects of study. Yet what could perhaps be called its tendency to fragment nature is always tempered by the desire for wholeness and universal law. Science always seeks a balance between the general and the particular, analysis and synthesis.

Image and Meaning

The significance of Wagner’s new series lies in the meanings behind the images. They refer to the first instances of division of a fertilized cell and have associations to the mysteries of birth and the origin of an individual life. They deal with the body such as the delicate organ of balance found within the human ear. They present us with everyday objects—a green onion, a cob of corn—but in ways in which we do not normally see them.

Illustrations of the cross sections of an onion or of dividing cells can be found in school biology texts. Yet in Wagner’s hands these images create a feeling of unease. Their technological roots indicate that biology itself has changed. After all, half a century ago biology was one of those ‘softer’ options in science. When I was at school, biology was all about dissection, classification, and description—quite different from the ‘hard science’ of physics. Today, biology draws on the most advanced technology to create its imaging. For example, in terms of costs involved and the level of international collaboration, the Human Genome project is akin to space exploration or elementary particle research.

Modern biology has staggering possibilities. It works at the genetic level. It has the capacity to design new crops and the insects that will protect them from predators. The first mammals have been cloned. Biology provokes difficult questions that must be answered at the social level. And in part these questions begin with an examination of the whole structure of the scientific endeavor. This is where Wagner’s work has importance, for she seeks to give new contexts to otherwise conventional images and in doing so causes us to think and to question.

Scale, Time and Aesthetics

In a world of ubiquitous reproductions, television screens, and computer terminals, we tend to forget about the importance and the visual impact of size. We don’t realize the physical dimensions of Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, or the smallness of Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation. Likewise, we expect images from SEM or MRI to be the size of book-page reproductions. As a result Wagner’s large-scale images are particularly arresting. The images fill our visual field and cannot be ignored. We have come to accept the magnification needed to illustrate cells and tiny organisms in a biology textbook. But it is more difficult to fathom a balance organ as large as a head and floating in a clueless, dimensionless background.  At such a scale Wagner’s work also challenges not only a passive reading of an image but our habit of move restlessly from picture to picture in a gallery. Moreover, because the organ appears to be suspended and devoid of all context, we are drawn to a similar act of suspension to meditate upon the meaning of the image.

This brings us to the quality of time inherent in Wagner’s images. They were not ‘captured’ in an instant but were built up from digital data in a slow and careful process. Time shows its hand. It creates a sense of stillness and surrounds us with its silence. Time can raise an image to the level of an icon.

Time also enters through the act of repetition, which has often been a feature of Wagner’s work. Repetition induces a meditative, reflective state. We associate it with a mantra, the rosary, or a story that must be repeated over and over again to a child. Repetition may also suggest a scientific experiment. For science can never be satisfied with the single instant or the exception to the rule. It must deal in what can be reproduced over and over again in the context of carefully controlled experiments.

Finally, for myself at least, Wagner’s repetition—pomegranate, corn, or onions—evokes a typology that is central to the history of biology. Biology grew out of painstaking observation, often on the part of amateurs who sought to classify plants, fungi, insects, birds, fish and animals into a variety of groupings and subgroupings. Likewise, bones and organs of various species can also be ordered and classified.

Classification arises out of repetition, and repetition generates order, and order in turn becomes information. To borrow from the physicist David Bohm, order is the collecting together of different similarities and similar differences. For the information theorist, Gregory Bateson, information is ‘the difference that makes a difference.’ And we must never forget that today we live in an information age where much of the fabric of our modern society is created out of the movement of digital information.

Wagner’s work causes me to reflect on this whole issue of repetition and classification. It reminds me that the origin of such classification systems lies within Aristotelian logic. It is a particular way of analyzing and dividing up the world. Classification systems work by ignoring contexts and contingencies. They involve either/or logic and are incapable of tolerating the ambiguity and paradox inherent in a logic of both/and. This is the logic of classical science. Yet quantum theory, for example, moves beyond such a logic, for it demands a more context-dependent view of the world based on wholeness, in which the part is always seen in the context of the whole. The philosopher Wittgenstein also reminds us that the world is more easily seen through what he termed ‘family resemblances’ than by classification into fixed categories and rigid concepts. In her own way, Wagner brings me to question something that lies at the very basis of science and the notion of information, that is, the way we isolate, collect together, frame, classify, categorize and conceptualize both the world and our own ideas.

Science and Aesthetics

Perhaps the most important element in Wagner’s work is that it stems from her particular aesthetic sense. Yet even here,the apparent division between art and science is clouded. Aesthetics plays a key role in science, particularly where its equations are concerned. For the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, the beauty of a piece of mathematical physics is both an end in itself and a means to that end. Paul Dirac, one of the leading physicists in the development of quantum theory, said that the beauty of the equations of physics produced in him a strong physical sensation3.

Aesthetics were also considered by the Weizmann scientists with whom Wagner worked closely to produce her images. For the molecular geneticist Eyal Schejter the goal in creating images in the laboratory was not solely to ‘get a scientific point across’ but also to create something that was ‘visually interesting and pleasing.’ In some cases, he said, aesthetic criteria are also part of the motive that causes a researcher to pick a particular path. After having worked with Wagner, Schejter felt that the line between the scientist and artist was much closer than normally believed.

Another Weizmann scientist, Steve Weiner said that he was ‘always excited about the beauty of the material we studied.’ Yet Wagner brought ‘a different eye’ by presenting her images in ways that ‘both respect nature and brings out their art.’ Weiner found that Wagner was looking at the sorts of things not always considered by the scientist, such as texture and asymmetry.


This brings me to an issue that has often puzzled me and one that clearly requires a more extended dialogue across the art/science fence: the role of beauty. While such words may have gone out of fashion in the world of art criticism, scientists are quite unashamed when they speak of beauty, elegance, and aesthetics. Yet, in the last analysis, are art and science talking about the same thing? Aesthetic considerations so often drive science, and science and its associated technology continue to transform our world. For such reasons, the nature of beauty in art and in science demands serious attention. Possibly one clue may come from a consideration of inscape within these two disciplines and of different ways of seeing.

The word inscape was coined by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to suggest a way of looking into the inner truth of the natural world, rather than seeing it as ‘landscape’ existing in some neutral, objective zone outside ourselves. Inscapepoints to the inner authenticity of a thing, to its particular uniqueness, its sense of presence in the world, and ultimately to what could perhaps be called its transcendent quality. In this sense, the notion of inscape resonates with the beliefs of indigenous cultures that hold that each rock, tree and river has its unique spirit, voice or song.

Wagner has said that while her previous work involved ‘looking out’ this new series has to do with ‘looking in.’ At a literal level this is certainly true, for she has employed instruments that look inside the structure of cells. But can this notion be deepened? What, indeed, does it mean to look in?

‘Looking in’ is certainly the case at the Weizmann Institute, as it has been for decades of particle physics. Yet, in this latter case, do we ever reach the true essence of matter or merely an endless series of ever-smaller material levels? Does the ground of being lie in such particles themselves or in underlying processes and fundamental symmetries? Let us take another case, this time from art. In Corps Étranger the artist Mona Hatoum seeks to enter her body in order to see within. Artists have traditionally been expected to discover and express some sort of ‘inner truth’ about a sitter. Hatoum does this using medical cameras that enter her throat, anus,  and vagina to record the body within. Yet Hatoum’s irony is that this search for inner self only reveals endless surfaces, membranes and boundaries. The subject has become yet another external object of scrutiny.

So in what way does Wagner’s ‘looking in’ differ from Hatoum’s? The question can be approached through inscape. For Hopkins, a priest as well as a poet, the world was ‘charged with the grandeur of God.’ Inscape lives in ‘the dearest freshness deep down things.’ A meditative quality evocative of inscape is also found in Wagner’s work. It reminds us of other inscapes in art. Indeed, when I first saw her work, the following phrase came into my mind ‘Wagner’s onions, Cézanne’s Apples, Cotán’s Fruit and Vegetables.’

In the last analysis the inner nature of an onion or an apple cannot be reached though MRI or SEM but from the unity of head and heart. In one of his still lives, Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627), a deeply religious man, used his searching vision to paint vegetables suspended on strings in a perfect parabola against a deep black background. Cotán’s observations are, on the one hand, stunningly realistic, yet each object is charged with a particular sense of presence to such an extent as to reveal the sacred nature of all living things. This sense, both of the unique individuality of things and of their transcendent qualities is also present in one of Cézanne’s apples. I believe that such a guiding principle was also present for Wagner as she worked in the laboratory to bring those all-too-human elements of most kitchens—a cob of corn, a spring onion—to life.

In her work, Catherine Wagner, emphasizes the qualities of scale, time, aesthetics and inscape in such a way as to cause us to pause before each of her images. In turn they invite us to think and to question. In the last analysis, the responsibility for Wagner’s work becomes our own.


1A critique of Western science and its cultural assumptions has been made not only by philosophers and historians of science but by feminist critics (see, for example, Griffin, Susan, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, Harper and Row, N.Y. 1978) as well as by representatives of other cultural traditions. (See for example, Sardar, Ziauddin, The Touch of Midas: Science, values and environment in Islam and the West, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1984 and Peat, F. David Blackfoot Physics: A Journey into the Native American Universe, 4th Estate, London, 1996.

2Martin Kemp, Visualizations: The nature Book of Art and Science, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000)

3Paul Buckley and David Peat, Glimpsing Reality: Ideas in Physics and the Link to Biology University of Toronto Press, Toronto, (1996)