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Izzie Prankerd dives into the weird and wonderful world of biochemistry, revealing some of the subject’s links with the visual arts.

Arts versus sciences, the debate rages frustratingly on. As most people have probably realised it is impossible to live in a world without art or without science. Then, why all the arguing? To make art, to see the beauty in the world around us, is human nature. So too is the curiosity, the burning desire to know why, which underpins science.

Biochemistry is a hard subject to define. It is a little of biology and chemistry, obviously, but it also encompasses medicine, physics, pharmacology, genetics, anatomy and microbiology. It ranges from the subatomic to the level of whole organisms. It is not surprising then, that biochemistry has inspired many artists around the world.

Here in the University of Bristol’s very own Biomedical Sciences department there is a competition called the Art of Science, which encourages researchers to share incredible images which they have created as part of their experiments.

Gunter von Hagens, ‘Strip Soccer’, part of his Body Worlds exhibition

In exploring this field, it is sensible to start large, and work down in size. Gunther von Hagens, familiar to some I imagine, is the mastermind behind the controversial ‘Body Worlds’ exhibitions. He developed a process called plastination, which replaces the fluids and fats in a biological specimen with polymers to prevent decomposition.

Originally this was used to preserve specimens to allow medical students to learn about anatomy. As the process developed he became able to preserve whole bodies. I remember one of my art teachers vehemently protesting that this cannot be called art, and in some ways I agree with him.

In 2002, Von Hagens performed the first public autopsy in the United Kingdom for 170 years in London’s Atlantis Gallery

Many of the exhibitions are designed to shock rather than to be visually compelling. There are a series of more recent pieces, however, that I believe cross that line and might even persuade my art teacher to reconsider. These later pieces remove all the tissues to leave only the blood vessels and create fascinating, almost lace-like sculptures.

A more detailed look at Von Hagens’s revolutionary, but controversial, plastination method

As time passes and technology becomes increasingly advanced, and new types of images can be created. A relatively recent development is fluorescence tagging of specific proteins to see their localisation or migration patterns. This information can provide vital clues as to the function of the protein or the mechanism by which it acts but it also creates some stunning imagery.

Chromosomes (blue) lined up for cell division

This technique is revolutionary because it can even be used in live organisms. Research is currently being done using zebrafish to study the mechanisms of embryogenesis (development from a single celled zygote to an embryo) or disease. Zebrafish embryos are ideal for imaging studies because they are transparent so the fluorescent proteins are easy to track.

David S. Goodsell is an illustrator for scientific textbooks. He transforms ideas of how cells might look into colourful, vibrant images and proves scientific diagrams do not have to be boring.

David Goodsell, B0010027 cross-section through mycoplasma mycoides

Laura Splan designs and creates lace dolls in the shape of viruses in an effort to reconcile the unseen world of microbes with objects from our everyday lives. She makes physical our fear of these viruses and the diseases they cause and places them in a domestic setting.

Her other work also explores the juxtaposition of everyday objects and the more sinister side of nature. She has created x-ray images of household objects such as chairs and tables with bones and organs making up their internal structures. One of her pieces—The Anatomy of Tears—is a handkerchief made out of a facial peel, embroidered with designs inspired by the tear duct. She makes paintings of intricate wallpaper patterns and cells in blood.

Behind the scenes at Splan’s ‘The Meat Show’, containing, amongst other things, wallpaper samples painted in with her own blood

One of her more bizarre pieces is a scarf knit from tiny plastic tubes. The scarf comes with an IV device that is inserted into the wearer’s hand; it then fills with the wearer’s blood and so simultaneously keeps them warm and drains their lifeblood away.

Luke Jerram—mind behind the famous Park Street slide—has recently opened an exhibition in At-Bristol, composed of incredibly detailed glass microorganisms. He has been crafting the transparent bacteria and viruses since 2004 and they are displayed publicly and privately around the world. Who ever thought bird flu could be beautiful?

Most of this article has been focused on how the science of biochemistry can contribute to art, but let us not forget what art can offer science. The University of Oxford opened a new Biochemistry building in 2008—it is not a conventional lab. The aim of the project was to make a new, creative work environment for researchers.

Luke Jerram’s HIV virus sculpture

The building is incredibly open and has glass walls with a view to making the research environment more open and allowing ideas to be easily shared. The project also has seven large installation pieces by various artists and numerous smaller works. The artists developed their pieces after spending time with the researchers in their labs. This is the perfect example of the symbiotic nature of art and science that we should be aiming for. Science inspiring art, art inspiring science.  

Any notion of an ‘arts versus sciences’ rivalry is, frankly, a waste of everybody’s time. Both require creativity, both require a methodical approach at times

Art and biochemistry are intrinsically linked. They are both ways of looking at the world and trying to understand what we see. Any notion of an ‘arts versus sciences’ rivalry is, frankly, a waste of everybody’s time. Both require creativity, both require a methodical approach at times. So, artists, ask your scientist friends about their lectures today and scientists, ask the artists. Share the knowledge…we’re all here paying enough for the privilege.

Related content: What has Art got to do with…Neuroscience?

Featured Image: Gunter von Hagens’s ‘Ballet Dancer’ 


If you know of any other artists who have dipped their toes into the world of biochemistry, let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @EpigramArts

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