The Biology of Art or the Art of Science, by Anaika Ajay

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After stumbling upon biologist Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations of flora and marine life, I could not stop thinking about how deeply intertwined art and the biosciences are. So I went on an Internet deep dive and read about the relation between the two subjects. Art is still essential to biology, accounts of animal and plant species exist because of sketches, illustrations and reimagined recreations or skeletal remains.

Bioscientists, studying zoology and morphology have used their combined artistic abilities and data gathered, to help understand evolution and ageing of various species. Information from the past that will help the present and future.

Just as artists painted self portraits before the concept of selfies existed, scientists rendered detailed illustrations of organisms, that were seen under a microscope (which is said to have been invented in the late 1500’s, over 200 years before the camera.) and that too is “art.”In the arts as well, fashion designers and artists are using materials and techniques usually associated with the biosciences, in their work.

Fashion and textile designers are constantly trying to develop new materials out of bacteria on human skin that would essentially act as a second layer of skin, making it durable enough to interact with the body and the environment differently, serving as an alternative to synthetic fabrics that are harmful for the environment. Interestingly, artists such as Drew Berry, whose video projection showcased infectious bacteria that were set free on the exhibition walls, and Suzanne Lee, who creates ‘growing’ textiles produced by sugar, tea and bacteria to fashion jackets and kimonos, work closely with materials and practices of the biosciences, often spending most of their time in laboratories, collaborating with scientists. This art transcends the basic definition of art and their work is often times viewed as art that pushes boundaries, with a lot of observers questioning “Is it art?”

*1However, bio-art only occupies a small part of exhibition spaces, because of the technical challenges it faces. Biological materials are technically very demanding, and require the right conditions to stay intact. Most artworks need to be done in a laboratory or need lab equipment. Moreover, since bio-art is more process-based and difficult to preserve, it requires constant documentation of changes, so it can seldom be viewed live, and is usually showcased in the form of film or photographs.

*2As artists and scientists continue to borrow each other’s knowledge and use it in their respective fields, the world of art and science are ever changing. With the invention of new materials, art is entering a new world filled with exciting possibilities.



Artwork by Ernst Haeckel, from his 1904 book, Kunstformen der Natur (“Art Forms of Nature”).

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