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Art and Science

- do they have anything to do with one another?

Painting by Ørnulf OpdahlArt and science are both based on intellectual abilities and skills. If we peer even just a short time back into the past, we see that science depended on artists to illustrate and visualise its results and convey these not only to other scientists but also to the general public. During the era of the great scientific expeditions, the role played by art and artists was of vital importance for scientists’ ability to get the message across, as well as their credibility. For the artist the process offered the possibility of setting his own stamp on new research results and of harvesting something of the inspiration, insight and enthusiasm that are features of the research front.

By Olav Rune Godø, chief scientist, Institute of Marine Research and Ørnulf Opdahl, artist

Some of our pioneering scientists were polymaths, in that as well as being at the cutting edge of research they were also practising artists. Such a combination could be a recipe for success: just think of Leonardo da Vinci. Good Norwegian examples are G. O. Sars, with his wonderful illustrations of plankton and early life stages of fish, and Fridtjof Nansen with his wonderful drawings from his expeditions. Today, it is the differences between the two disciplines that are most evident. Nevertheless, the parallels are clear; both attempt to extend the area of what we know (or what we think that we know), and to express what has not yet been expressed. Nowadays, artists and scientists are specialists who control their own domains of activity and cultivate their peculiarities. Scientists can easily illustrate their results with the aid of advanced computer-based graphics, while the artist reveals his vision via the cultivation of esoteric ideas and techniques. Both of them look for attention and recognition within their own relatively narrow markets.

So what has happened to the artistic aspect when scientists present their results? And what has happened to the artists when the world is to be informed about scientific discoveries - with the sort of information that stimulates beyond the realm of hard facts, offering greater immediacy, realism and understanding? In our computer-controlled world, this traditional interaction has disappeared. We feel that this loss is of fundamental importance, and an international debate on this subject suggests that we are not alone in this belief. In 2004, the Institute of Marine Research and the University of Bergen organised a deep-sea international expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a little-studied submarine mountain range that lies at depths of several thousand metres. Although we did not know quite what results to expect, we invited a visual artist to join the expedition and the resulting alliance is what has inspired this chronicle.

Both science and art become poverty-stricken and soulless when they lack that extra ingredient that takes them beyond their purely intellectual characteristics. But can these two fields of human endeavour build on intellectual properties alone? Although they have not been quantified and evaluated, we can all see that that indefinable properties such as representational ability, fantasy and intuition are given great weight in both of these fields. These properties are their very essence and life-force; they are what enable impressions to last beyond the moment of their reception and to stimulate generation after generation. What has science really lost in the course of becoming self-sufficient with the aid of the computer? And where art is concerned, could art and the artist gain from the stimulation offered by the fantastic world of the innovative scientist? The dream and the imaginative spirit that lie at the leading edge of the elegant work of the scientist, and the sense of elation and enthusiasm that follow in the wake of his results, make up an inexhaustible source of energy and fantasy. Is not precisely this an ideal field to excite an artist? To reveal, describe and understand the unknown in all its beauty and brutality is an interest and a driving force shared by both parties. This was the reason for our experiment: could close “cohabitation” and interaction between science and art produce significant results of benefit to both parties?

Philosophy is the historical foundation for both modern art and science. In fact, natural scientists called themselves “philosophers” until well into the 19th century, and for Isaac Newton, alchemy was just as important as his investigations of the laws of physics. There was not always a clear distinction between the ways in which the philosopher, the artist and the scientist studied the world. With the aid of only a few books and a great deal of time, brooding and speculating were the most important methods of satisfying one’s curiosity, and a good question was worth as much as a good answer. As the sum of knowledge in the world’s libraries increased, methodology became ever more important in science. This makes it easy for us to forget that art and science both arise out of culture, and that each of them offers an alternative route to our understanding of the fundamental questions that also occupy philosophy and religion.

The expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is over. Two months of hard work have gone by, and we obtained fantastic results. We have collected thousands of biological samples, many of them still to be analysed, while the sketches, ideas and finished watercolours in a range and variety that have surprised us all (including the artist) will continue to inspire us into the future. What exactly happens when an artist is bombarded with impressions from some 30 scientists and technologists at the cutting edge of many different disciplines? The process of creation started with a brilliant array of sunrises and sunsets that brought out the artist’s point of departure and the continuity of his vision. This was gradually replaced by the overwhelming challenge of sketching the spectacular creatures of the deep and the environment that they inhabit.

How can these almost inconceivable life forms, with their specialised structures that surpass anything created by the human imagination, survive at depths of hundreds or even thousands of metres? It is an overwhelming challenge for both scientist and artist to understand what is happening, on the basis of a few more or less intact specimens that are brought to the surface, plus some video sequences that, if we are fortunate, offer us a glimpse of how these animals behave in their natural environment. One fascinating aspect of this experience was that a renewed recognition of our own understanding of nature is created by the scientist’s efforts to provide the visual artist with a degree of insight into his range of knowledge. We have seen (and many of us are keen to see the next stage) how the artist’s feedback stimulates innovative thinking via his own special modes of expression. Beauty has a remarkable effect on people. At any rate, what the artist and the scientists have in common is that enough material has been collected to keep them busy processing it for many years to come.

When we wish to commence a process of cooperation, it is essential to identify common interests. In our case, there was curiosity and a life-long interest in the invisible life that goes on beneath the surface of the sea, and a first-class opportunity to enjoy good company. From the artist’s point of view, the possibility of sharing in the insights of the scientists and of following their work for a good period of time was a dream come true. For the scientist, the possibility of reaching out to the general public through the medium of art is an exciting means of expression and a first-class way of improving our power to communicate. However, perhaps the most exciting element is the ability of art to give expression to what has been unknown, vague, hitherto unexpressed. Could this give new energy to research?

We enjoyed a wonderful cruise to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. So far, there is no doubt that this form of cooperation has more than met our expectations. The first artistic results have already been presented to the public, while the scientists are working on the material that will gradually be published. The challenge that faces us now lies in exploiting the energy that lay in this summer’s adventure and to make use of it in joint projects in the future. We have many plans to achieve this. We are certain that both the public and professionals in both of our fields of endeavour will take great deal of pleasure in what is still to come, and that they will find it useful. We are so sure of this that we already dare to challenge other research groups to utilise this unreleased energy in similar cooperative ventures in other areas of science and art. So much do we owe, not only to art and science, but also to the community to which these endeavours belong.

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