Sunday, January 11, 2004

Looking at medicine through art
B.N. Goswamy

"Biology makes me appreciate the beauty and complexity of life, and I never cease to be amazed."

— Tony Holder

NOT long ago, I received an invitation from NIPER( National Institute for Pharmaceutical Education and Research) based in Mohali, to ‘a lecture and an exhibition’ by a scientist visiting the place from England. Lectures on scientific matters are not an area of primary interest to me; the notice was a bit short; and there was another obligation that I had to meet that afternoon: I did not therefore make it to the event. I regret that now, for the lecturer, Dr. Lizzie Burns, apparently had very interesting things to say, and to show. Hearing about it later, and seeing some of the things that I missed, I made an effort to acquaint myself with the work that formed the focus of that event. This piece is all about that. There is not much that I am adding on my own, my ignorance about the field being of serious proportions: I am only ‘re-presenting’ what I think it is all about.

Burns is a scientist herself, and was doing post-doctoral work in biochemistry at Oxford University before she became a full-time artist, devoting her time to a project, ‘Medical Research Revealed, funded by the Medical Research Council of the UK. Research at the Council is centred upon six major areas: genetics and cell biology, neuroscience and mental health, among them. But one of the Council’s concerns also is to find practical solutions for better healthcare, and to reach out to wider audiences by trying to present complex scientific ideas simply, or through unorthodox means, like using the visual medium. Burns’ brief was to do the last-mentioned. But, as an artist, she set about it scientifically: approaching the different teams engaged in research work at the council, deepening her understanding of their research areas, trying to unravel the creative process at work in the minds of the distinguished scientists, and then interpreting some of their critical thoughts, or findings, in visual terms. In the form of paintings, to be exact.

It is not easy. It is also not easy for the non-scientist to enter, visually, a complex scientific notion. But one can get there, if one wishes to, or is drawn into it initially. Take the case of a painting inspired by, or at least related to, the highly significant work on genetic analysis that Prof Ed Southern is doing at Oxford. If it looks like a beautiful cornfield at first from the midst of which a complex, rhythmic form is rising and soaring upwards, it is with intent. For, Burns has presented in it thousands of single DNA strands bound at one end to a glass base: each stalk in that ‘cornfield’ can recognize and pair with one of thousands of genes. And when one learns that the blue strands here represent the ‘gene of interest’, marked as it is with green fluorescent dyes, suddenly one’s awareness of what is happening in that mystifying, rarefied field acquires a sharper edge.

Or, take again, the rendering of an aspect of replication in one, potentially fatal, kind of malarial infection. The painting looks like an enlargement of some insignificant detail picked up from a Hieronymous Bosch work: a richly coloured, bulging poppy ‘bulb’ bursting open to reveal countless things hidden inside it. What, however, it is a visual translation of, is how the malarial parasite has eaten most of the iron-rich haemoglobin, leaving a brown iron crystal and the pale shell of a red blood cell. It is the simultaneous rupturing of red blood cells, scientists tell us, that result in the devastating effects of fever and anaemia.

The uncertain world of valuation
December 14, 2003
Seasons of longing
November 16, 2003
Greed in the land of antiques
November 2, 2003
Of elegant walks & sculpted silks
October 19, 2003
Pattern-drawers of Benares
October 5, 2003
Kaghaz ki kahani
September 21, 2003
The rains in poetry and painting
September 7, 2003
The way of the brush
August 24, 2003
Passion for collecting textiles
August 10, 2003
Dazzling images from Amir Hamza’s life
July 27, 2003

This is the way Burns’ work has proceeded, and this exhibition goes. Even the way the show has been organised is interesting, for it starts with the smallest biological subjects – molecules – and finishes, travelling via infectious diseases and cells, to organs like the heart and the brain. Along the way, one sees cells magnified and brilliantly coloured, looking as if they came from a still-life by Cezanne; brain-ageing plaques and tangles presented as if they were segments of an enormous canvas by an abstract-expressionist like Jackson Pollock. Only a few of the paintings bring in actual organs etc. that one can recognise: the rest are works that would stand on their own as visually exciting works of art that have a logic and aesthetics of their own, without any necessary reference to scientific research.

When, as part of her work, Burns was interviewing the scientists working at the Medical Research Council, she picked up some statements that contain meaningful thoughts, simply put. And I am tempted to quote them. "I was always interested in the way things work", said Sir Ed Southern, for instance. "I think a large part of science is curiosity. If you’re the type of person who’s always asking questions, science is the place to go." Again, Prof Austin Smith, on the need to work on research that will bring benefits to human health, said: "If there is potential to apply what you’re doing to improve the human condition, you need a damned good reason not to do that."

Crossing other boundaries

Looking at, and writing about, Lizzie Burns’ work occasioned by medical research, I was reminded of another work that dealt with crossing the boundaries between art and science. It was a French book, catalogue of an exhibition titled The Dance of the Universe – I might even have written about it in this column – in which the authors published a number of paintings, the work of modern artists, which had a visionary look about them: which anticipated in some ways the great leaps that physics and nuclear physics have taken in our times. Exciting, meaningful work.