Assimilating the art in science

TLoS art director Ipsa Jain caught up with comix artist Arghya Manna to discuss what makes SciArt distinct from #SciArt, the deeply personal process of creating, and where it stands in India today.
By | Published on Jul 8, 2020

Editorial note: As a feminist multimedia science collective, TLoS aims to critically explore the challenge of making science communication more potent. This post is the first in a series of articles deliberating on SciArt. It will raise important questions posed to science art professionals in India and the US, and also bring together some amazing SciArt to guide the conversation.

With rising interest in science communication, there has been a rising interest in SciArt as well. The buzz is undeniable, but what does SciArt really mean? How are contemporary science artists in India thinking? Arghya Manna, a comix artist, with scientific training, has been pushing the envelope with his work on documentation of the history of science. Arghya Manna is also a journalist who lives and works in Calcutta. With his work, he intends to explore how knowledge is generated. Ipsa Jain is a part of team TLoS, and a sci-artist interested in telling stories of science through the visual medium. For her, drawing science is another way of looking at the biological world that leads to new questions. To deliberate on ‘SciArt’ further Ipsa and Arghya sat down to discuss their ideas on the confluence of science and art.

IJ: Arghya, what does the confluence of science and art mean to you?

AM: As a scientist, I drew science illustrations to make science more accessible to people, through art. Now, I question what is art and what is science? Public perception is that a scientist is a person elucidating the mystery of nature in the lab, with an option of representing data visually. Art on the other hand is the expression of a person, which may or may not be a story. The viewers decide how they experience the work.

An excerpt from Arghya’s series on Robert Hooke

During the Renaissance, science and art were not separate. I am exploring the same with comix, which has space for both figures and text. Science and art can be expressed together by putting scientific or natural principles in your heart while making your work. Olafur Eliasson’s work is a great example. He is experimenting with lights, colors and shadows, and metal. He is creating a new form based on the existing knowledge and principles.

The question ultimately is what kind of knowledge are you creating? Are you using existing knowledge to create a new form or new knowledge?

My work now is not about communicating, unlike your work, Ipsa, which is pedagogical in nature. At the moment, my work is about attempting to create new knowledge while pushing the boundaries of what we already know.

Arghya explores the idea of finite focal pockets (balloons) in an infinite grid that makes up the whole universe. This is inspired by visualisations of the universe by MC Esher and Arthur Eddington.

IJ: I like the comparison you brought up between new form vs new knowledge. Let’s look at Olafur’s work that is about creating new forms from existing knowledge. Given that biases creep in from our context and our memories while looking at anything, when someone experiences his work, with or without the context of the existing knowledge, are they not creating a different knowledge for themselves? This difference between new knowledge or new form should not invalidate this experience.

To call a piece of work successful, in the context of science and art, at which end should we look? The intention of the creator, or the effect that it has on the viewer? What should happen at both ends for us to call it ‘valuable’?

AM: You are right! There is no clear demarcation there. I think the idea of success for art is also much like that of success in science. Some studies are recognised immediately for their value and impact the work that follows them. On the other hand, some studies are sidelined and don’t get their due until years later. Things like that have happened for artworks also. They may take time to be understood, but if people are talking about it even after years, it has made its mark.

Olafur’s work uses scientific principles to create perceptions of light and color in one’s environment to evoke emotions. Source: wikicommons

IJ:  What do you think can come out of such processes, a confluence of science and art?

AM: I will give you a practical example. I saw a huge bamboo sculpture at IIT Gandhinagar. What does one practically get from this work?

It is an aesthetically beautiful work. Anyone can appreciate that. It is a visible physical product, a materialistic asset. If one looks at it carefully, you will realise that there are no binding wires. The artist played with basic geometric principles. It has a pedagogical value in creating and promoting knowledge, therefore making it a knowledge-based asset. Both of these make it a success.

IJ: There is the hashtag #SciArt. The kind of work that exists with that label on social media is diverse. It ranges from aesthetic representations and actual science illustrations to experimental and knowledge-seeking work.

How do we derive the meaning of SciArt from the work that we see under #SciArt on social media? I see a lot of work that is mainly an aestheticised version of existing schematics with new ideas, form, or knowledge. And also, is aestheticisation enough, or even necessary?

AM: To me, the hashtag is only about networking and visibility.

In answer to your last question, yes, the work has to be aesthetically pleasing.  If your expression is not pleasing, no one will pay attention. The other aspect that matters is whether you are communicating existing knowledge or creating new knowledge.

When you look at any visual work you get different layers of information that the human eye can see. You see the luminosity and the difference in contrast; this reveals the overall skeleton and the form of the drawing. Any expert can tell if your lack of form is a result of a deliberate attempt or a lack of skill set. The next layer is color and the differences in tone. If the contrast of your tones is too high, it is easy to tell if you are a Caravaggio or an amateur.

The next level of information is cerebral. Is there a deeper meaning to your work? If not, then it is just an illustration and can still be a good piece of art. But if you layer your work with a message, a few in the audience will get it, and they will get immense joy from it.

IJ: I must tell you my reasons for asking this question. When I present my current body of work (the zines), the first response I get is that ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful.’ For me, my work is about provoking thought. If someone’s only response is, ‘it’s beautiful’, I feel that I didn’t do my job right. When someone recognises the metaphors and the layers of information there, I am delighted.

Ipsa’s zine series that explores what is a cell.

AM: Let’s think of your zine. You spent a lot of time thinking about it and when you were satisfied with how you presented the idea, you printed it and shared it. It looks pleasing and there is a story of science that one uncovers at the end. Those are the layers you built. And that’s the response you want, “oh, there is this science to it”. But if someone spent only a little time with it, the comment of it being beautiful is a good response. There is no reason to get upset by it. If someone spends more time flipping through it, they might uncover the layers you have put. It also depends on their visual and linguistic vocabularies.

IJ: Who are your favourite artists in the ‘SciArt’ domain?

AM: I would like to mention three names, Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Hooke, and Maurits Cornelis Escher. Leonardo’s drawing inspired me to look at the details of nature, including geometry. Robert Hooke’s artworks were very epistemological, where the artist’s hand and the philosopher’s mind integrate perfectly. His drawings are not only based on observations under the microscope but he also clearly folded in his assumptions and the existing knowledge into his works. However, Escher’s work is my real crush! These days I am trying to understand his mind. Perhaps, I can use his artistic philosophy in my comics, or his work will help in finding out my own SciArt philosophy.

Leonardo da Vinci’s work did not separate scientific and artistic sensibilities. Source: wikicommons

IJ: Some of my favorites, historically, are Maria Sybilla Merian, Anna Atkins and Marianne North. All of them women and all have been natural history illustrators. What do you think has been the role of women in the history of SciArt?

AM: My favorite natural history illustrator is Marianne North. She travelled to remote places on earth and drew in the wild. She broke plenty of barriers and did the kind of work her male contemporaries never did. Women have been working in parallel with male artists ever since.

We do not know if there were any women who worked in parallel with Albrecht Dürer or Leonardo da Vinci; there is no documentation known yet. In the Victorian era, a few women were lucky to get exposure. I use the word lucky, as for most women in that era, living situations were pretty bad. Apart from natural history, early SciArt included mechanical drawing, a field that women were not easily welcomed to take part in.

We are yet to study all of the tapestries, the weaved clothes, clay pots, household objects, and other such media that women often used to express their thoughts, expressions, or knowledge. For example, the Bayeux tapestry – an important document to understand middle-age astronomy, was woven by a group of women. They have documented positions of stars and constellations and comets. We need to study these minutely to really understand the contribution of women in the history of SciArt.

Now, everyone works in parallel and contributes to SciArt work. There are several women artists like Zaria Foreman, Laura Redniss, Anila Quayyum and Gemma Anderson who have been recognised for their work and contribution.

IJ: Thanks for sharing. The reason to have this conversation is essentially the following. I want to raise the level of the discourse about what SciArt can be in the Indian community, among peers, scientists, or clients and collaborators. I imagine building three kinds of communities. One of all people who practice at the interface of science and art. And I mean artists who work with all kinds of media. Just because of our own practices, we have been discussing visual arts, but this could include performative arts and other media as well. This would allow a more peer-based discussion and raise the level of the discourse in our conversations and allow for projects together.

The other community that I would like to see the form is that of our clientele and collaborators so that we can discuss our processes with them; understand their point of view such that the process of working together becomes smoother. And the third community that I want to build is that of our audience to have more open explorations with them. We also need to build ways for cross-talk among all these communities.

AM: There are bound to be smaller communities within these communities. And we need to take the effort to build these communities and facilitate the bridges between them. We could start by having an annual meet or an annual exhibit by members of our own small community. And I feel a need to communicate the science of daily life to the public via the print medium. Print is the immutable smartphone, with deeper reach. I really believe the print medium has the power we need. With the print, we will find parents encouraging their children to think about work in these directions.

IJ: I agree that science-based imagery should become a part of public memory. Thank you for this discussion. I hope this series of discussions will be a primer for us to organise these communities in India and take the discussion forward. Once we reach a threshold of the number of people working towards this, funding bodies would have to participate in the conversation.

Ipsa’s hopes and agendas for interaction of SciArt community amongst themselves and with other groups

BONUS: Here is a peek into a page from Arghya’s sketchbook. This is his preparatory sketch for a comix reflecting on the #MeToo movement, which was published in Multidimension Magazine. You can see the entire comic here.

NOTE: All paintings/sketches in this post are courtesy Arghya Manna. These are his original works. The TLoS team urges our readers to not use these images without permission from the artist. This piece is a part of Season 5 of sponsored by a grant from DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance.

About the author(s)
Ipsa Jain

Art director at The Life of Science

4 responses to "Assimilating the art in science"

    Suman Choudhury says:

    Very interesting and enlightening Interview….

    Dr.S.Arunachalam says:

    Very interested in Art-Science. Mail me regularly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *