American Scientist SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2022 VOLUME 110, NUMBER 5
The three-dimensional nature of sculpture provides an accessible and tangible medium for exploring complex scientific ideas.
You are walking to the library and notice an oversize human sculpture obviously assembled from irregular metal slats. As you pass it by, the sculpture nearly disappears into the background. What just happened?
German-born sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae just enabled you to experience the insubstantiality of the perceptible world, or his Quantum Man sculpture did, as you peered through its thin slats from the side (see images below). Sculpture has special resonance within science—sculpture can embody an idea, such as quantum mechanics, and even offer a vicarious symbolic experience of a scientific concept, as this one does. The physical realization of ideas makes sculpture a medium that is perhaps uniquely suited to the creation of sci-art—a merging of art and science.
To create sci-art, an artist studies and meditates on a scientific concept and then reimagines and recreates that concept as an image or object, or even a sound or melody. These creations can spark emotional engagement with scientific concepts, aid accessibility to scientific ideas, reduce the perception of science as difficult or exclusive, and make science education fun and delightful.
Such works of art may not provide a full explanation of a scientific principle, but they can engage viewers in productive reflection as they interpret the piece. We can walk around a sculpture, take in its three-dimensional shapes and definitions of space, as well as its colors, textures, materials, and physical weight. The direct, felt experience of sculpture can invite us to sense abstract and confusing ideas, contemplate powerful themes such as the impact humans have on the natural world, or experience kinetic scientific concepts in action.
Quantum mechanics is one of the most unintuitive ideas in science. Julian Voss-Andreae challenged himself to represent it, or at least one of its theoretical micro-aspects, on the macroscale of ordinary objects. At the subatomic level, quantum mechanics posits that matter exists as both moving particles and waves; whether it is visible depends on how the matter is measured and observed. With his series of Quantum Man sculptures, Voss-Andreae lets us have the experience of peeking into the Alice-in-Wonderland world of perception-dependent reality.
Sculpture has the power to embody the principles of science, abstract as they may be, like few other art forms.
Voss-Andreae himself wanted to become a painter until he read Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind and “got hooked to the bizarre world of quantum physics,” as he told Art Summit in 2018. In graduate school, Voss-Andreae studied experimental physics, working with Anton Zeilinger on the quantum behavior of large objects. Regarding his equal commitment to art and science, the prolific sculptor cites Albert Einstein: “Common to both is the devotion to something beyond the personal, removed from the arbitrary.”
The Quantum Man sculptures are abstracted human figures made from thin metallic plates shaped, spaced, and aligned so that when viewed head-on they seem to form solid subjects. Viewed from the side, though, the sculpture partially disappears into its surroundings as we look through the spaces between the slices. The partial disappearance of the figure enables us to witness on the level of ordinary scale a basic quantum idea: that what appears to us as solid matter is ultimately made up of tiny particles in the quantum realm. Absolutes, essences, Platonic solids—in this dimension, they do not exist.
The physicality of such a sculpture allows us to feel a connection to it and, by extension, to the concept it represents. Our bodily sensations are shaped by what we see, as if we take on the form, tensions, balance, and postures of the work we are viewing. This physical response involving muscular imitation taps into a phenomenon called proprioception—your awareness of your body’s movement, action, and position. Our proprioceptive response to Quantum Man can excite bodily knowledge of quantum reality. We seem to fade away ourselves when its rigid steel opens up to space and light as we move around it. Here, art conveys an esoteric idea from science in a way we can both sense and observe.
Sculpture is also a fascinating medium for exploring the impacts of human beings and human culture on the world around us, as well as the impacts of human interference on the very nature of biological life.
Mary Mattingly’s Life of Objects, for example, forces us to feel the weight of an irregular sphere of her collected, unwanted possessions on her nude body; it is a meditation on the dangers of human overconsumption (see image below). Mattingly works in many media, focusing on photography, performance, portable architecture, and sculptural ecosystems in her commitment to alert us to the dangerous effects of climate change.
To create Life of Objects, Mattingly gleaned “objects” such as books, clothing, furniture, and trinkets from around her apartment and then tied them up with twine into what she calls “boulders” and dragged them across the Bayonne Bridge between New York and New Jersey. This makes Life of Objects a performance piece, staged and videoed to convey the drag and pull our possessions exert on us. (See her “Pull 2013” video.) Like most of us, Mattingly feels tethered to her possessions, which impede her and weigh her down. Her boulders of “stuff” are very heavy, and their inert “life” finally pins her to the floor in a vanquished, submissive posture.
Our proprioceptive experience of the effect of Mattingly’s boulder of goods on the human body communicates the harms of overconsumption perhaps more strongly than familiar reminders to reduce, reuse, and recycle. With this piece, we can feel the burden of our consumption pressing us to the floor.
The idea that human behavior negatively affects the natural world and ourselves, so painfully obvious in Mattingly’s work, is also addressed in Core Sample, a sculpture by Chilean-born textile artist Minga Opazo (see image below). Here, the sculpture is plunked in front of us as an unavoidable enigma. We sense its weight, its boxy shape, and the contrast between unblended layers of festive fabric and dry, inert-looking soil.
Opazo’s work is informed by the discovery that much textile fashion waste winds up in the Chilean desert, and she is committed to reusing that waste in her art. She wants to expose the unsustainable use of textiles, the exploitation of fabric workers everywhere, and the possible absorption of cloth back into the earth. In her most recent works, she collaborates with mycologists to discover which fungi best turn fabrics to mulch.
But to what does Core Sample refer? Or to what does it not refer? Observing this piece is an exercise in scientific and artistic looking. We must perform mental tests about its materials, weight, possible origins, and resemblance to known objects. The title indicates a mining or geological sample. Core is charged with multiple meanings—the heart, foundation, essence—it is as if the artist has extracted something foundational from the earth or from herself.
Conceptually, the layering of fabric with mud evokes the incompatibilities, even the conflict, between the earth and humans. The textiles retain their colors, textures, and softness, as if preserved in an earthen time capsule. We might say that, like this cloth, human culture is fixed in the natural world and yet retains its unique qualities. Such an interpretation highlights the interdependence of nature and human culture.
It’s hard to settle on a single interpretation of Core Sample, however, and its radical ambiguity leaves us with something of a sci-art Rorschach test that evokes the investigative practices of exhumation, examination, and discovery.
A sculpture can be strangely like music and dance: We flow with it, sample its rhythms, and reach an understanding about it that is often more somatically felt than intellectually reasoned.
Suzanne Anker is another artist contemplating the interplay between the natural world and human culture. She is a leader in the field of bio-art who frequently speaks at major universities and publishes in science journals. Going back 30 years, her works of art can even qualify as science experiments in genetics. Her newest works push the scientific envelope and concern the possible, fanciful evolution of biologic and nonbiologic substances.
Anker’s canvases are petri dishes, and her sculptural material is anything she puts in them. In Rainbow Loom, Anker filled hundreds of petri dishes with different substances, objects as well as artifacts, and she staged them to ferment into new, combined substances (see image below). The piece contemplates the way bioscience could incorporate, grow, and merge biological and nonbiological items into hybridized life-forms. The exhibit promotes speculation and fanciful wondering that could generate new forms of hybrid sci-art objects, as well as otherworldly theories about the connections between the animate and the formerly living.
The idea behind Rainbow Loom is rooted in the real scientific discovery that a protein from jellyfish can light up cells, tissues, and organs from other creatures. Similarly, Anker wants to blend the genes of these objects to reveal deep connections between disciplines, and to create things she declares to be “naturally hypernatural”—that is, the miraculous rooted in the natural.
There is also an elaborate, deep pun at the core of this project, where “culture” has at least two meanings: the bio-cultures grown in petri dishes and the cultural dimensions of modern society and modern bio-science. “In this real or imagined container a concept or a substance, if allowed to ferment, will sprout its hidden dimensions,” Anker wrote in an essay for Antennae in 2015. “From seeds, to politics, to toxic environments inside, such a dish brings forth a host of arresting results.”
All three of these artists expose our complicated reliance on both physical, organic materials and the human-made products we use every day that can estrange us from the natural world. The artists urge us to examine those materials—how useful are they?—and find ways they might instead reconnect us to the natural world.
A sculpture can consist of moving objects, demonstrating scientific concepts in kinetic action, or it may even convey the idea of motion through its design and three-dimensionality. Ken Patton’s Walking Hammer, for instance, is a perfect example of sculpture in motion, enacting the shift from potential energy to kinetic energy again and again as the hammer “walks” back and forth. (Watch the sculpture below.)
Before his death in 2012, Patton was an engineer who designed sawmills and loved mechanical motion. He liked comforting motion best, positing that certain movements, such as that of the pendulum in a large clock, can comfort and calm us.
The slightest initial nudge will set Walking Hammer in motion that continues for over 10 minutes in a performance of changing dynamic equilibrium. The twirling hammer (which is actually two hammers whose handles have been fused) rolls, or “walks,” along a curved tilting channel, up and down again, reaching the far ends of the curve at either end, with a sledgehammer below countering their weight. The rotational kinetic movement of the smaller fused hammers primes the bigger hammer’s kinetic energy until the entire sculpture pauses in an all-potential phase, with gravity ready to set the twirling hammers and the sledge into motion again. Art, craft, playfulness, and basic but serious scientific principles merge in this sculptural figure.
In contrast, Susan Knight’s static, 3-D paper cutouts are fixed sculptures that represent all forms of movement, mainly involving water. She studies scientific issues explaining ecosystem breakdowns, riparian health, and groundwater quality, and she imaginatively transforms these concepts into patterns. (I used an image of her work in my self-published collection Illuminations: Poems Inspired by Science.)
Knight’s sculpture titled Velocity, Chaos Flow represents the shift in phase from order to chaos, invoking the motion and impact of an invasive aquatic crustacean, the spiny water flea (Bythotrephes longimanus), on North American ecosystems (see image below). Introduced from northern Europe and Asia, this invader has no local predators, reproduces quickly, and competes with zooplankton and small fish for food.
Knight’s piece has a curved, smoothed top above long, discontinuous tentacles outfitted with long barbs. These tentacles represent the fitful movements and the piercing barbs of Bythotrephes longimanus, as well as the phase shift from order to ongoing chaos that occurs as the lake water experiences the ripple effects of the water flea. Knight carved these intricate, delicate shapes with a simple X-Acto knife, and her work seems fragile, even joyous, while conveying the massive and widespread negative impacts of the water flea.
The whole piece seems to swim like an uncanny creature spreading disorder in our planet’s natural habitats. Models of such chaos evoke what looms ahead in our unraveling world. On her website, Knight says she wants this and other works to engage viewers “in a heightened reflection on our shared responsibilities to water.”
A moving sculpture can engage with the viewer, recreating the interconnectivity of humans with our natural and built environments. Such principles are on display in Philip Beesley’s Meander, a permanent art and science installation in a former factory on the Grand River in Ontario, Canada (see image below). The work is not one piece but an enclosed, interactive environment one wanders through that is designed to invoke “joy, awe, and wonder.” It is used as a teaching device replete with detailed STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) curricula for grades 5 and 8.
Beesley is both sculptor and architect, with creative energies that extend from durable design to digital prototyping and computer-controlled electromechanical systems. These talents become manifest in Meander, an interdisciplinary team project, which—like his other works—attempts to impart a sense of interdependent biologic and civic renewal.
Beesley claims Meander is the “largest living architecture sculpture in the world.” The sculpture uses computers and sensors to interact with viewers as they move through the installation. The interactive spheres, clouds, and water-like formations evoke environmental elements in and around the Grand River area.
This ambitious sculptural project provokes more than just bodily proprioceptive responses from its viewers; it literally responds to movements of the human body. Conceptually, Meander provides an experiential model of our relationship to the environment, with back-and-forth interactions among people and the natural world tightly linked. The message is especially powerful given its setting in a restored former industrial area.
Meander, a collaborative effort of artists, engineers, environmentalists, and architects, can be labeled a gesamtkunstwerk, a total or all-embracing art form. It exemplifies the idea that radical and highly imaginative productivity can emerge from the best sci-art endeavors.
Sculpture has a power to embody the principles of science, abstract as they may be, that few other art forms can match. A piece of sculpture confronts us, and we react unavoidably to its physical designs. A sculpture can both arrest and puzzle us in its silent fixity or motion; change with our movements around it; overwhelm us with its imposing forms; force us to decipher what an uncanny shape may mean; and engage our own body in response to its shapes.
A sculpture can be strangely like music and dance, in that we flow with it, sample its rhythms, and reach an understanding about it that is often more somatically felt than intellectually reasoned.
Some sci-art works stop us in our tracks and let us wonder about seen and unseen worlds, while at the same time inspiring us to take better notice of the magnificent ordinariness of the familiar, and to take better care of it before it disintegrates into particles, personal trash, fabric debris, or contaminated waterways. Other works invite us to play with our world; to watch its synchronous motions, to dance with the living environment, to scheme new ways of producing hybrids. That is the ultimate purpose of this science-inspired, wonder-stimulating art—to tie us back into the concrete physical dimension of everyday life with a renewed commitment to enjoying and protecting its fragile beauty.
As humans, we often need help wrapping our minds around abstract concepts. We are visual, tactile creatures, so we are likely to best understand an idea when we can physically represent it. One medium that often works well for exploring complex scientific ideas is art, and in this issue, Robert Louis Chianese takes us on a tour of science-influenced sculpture (“Sculpting Science,” Arts Lab). The pieces that Chianese describes aim to uncover ideas relating to quantum physics, waste and recycling, force and motion, invasive species, and even the line between the living and the inanimate. As with most art, these pieces go beyond the concepts they directly address and draw the reader into an interaction with the piece, with the aim of evoking wider thoughts about the interplay between humanity and the natural world.
Indeed, when you look through this issue you will find other articles offering insights about how we affect the world around us. In the Perspective column, Asia Murphy discusses a shift in ecology, from studying how fear of apex predators affects the behavior of prey animals to analyzing how apex predators’ fear of humans changes their behaviors and ecosystems (“A Landscape of Fear of Humans”). As Murphy explains, exposure to humans causes apex predators to change not only where they go but when they go there, and how they eat as a result. Such behavior ripples out. For instance, it increases the activity level of smaller creatures at different times, which can affect seed distribution and even overall ecosystem composition over the long term. These and other effects can have wide-ranging consequences, even when we think we are conserving areas for wildlife.
Our own health as a species can also be altered by human behavior and tendencies. In “The History of Vaccine Uptake in Taiwan,” HungYin Tsai tells the story of how Japanese colonialism has affected that island, explaining that failure of the colonizers to consider local traditions and practices resulted in a great deal of resistance among the native population to public health initiatives during an epidemic of bubonic plague in which strong policing tactics were used. In later outbreaks of plague and cholera, when traditional practices were incorporated into public health responses, vaccination rates were much higher.
And human behavior can be purposely misleading. As Viviana Masia describes in “The Art and Science of Manipulative Language,” implied messages in language can influence how people think without them realizing it. This technique has been used in literary contexts—by Shakespeare, for example—but it’s also widely employed in advertising. By informing readers about various types of implied messaging and alerting them about what to watch out for, Masia aims to give people better tools with which to examine these messages in order to avoid being manipulated by them.
We hope these different perspectives on various types of human influence give you food for thought about how you are both influencing and being influenced by other people and the world around you. If you find that your awareness has changed after reading any of these articles, write to us and let us know. We appreciate the opportunity to be influenced by feedback from our readers. —Fenella Saunders (@FenellaSaunders)
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