Views & Reviews Review

Alive and kicking

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d1058 (Published 16 February 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1058
  1. Muiris Houston, medical journalist, Ireland, and student on the masters programme in medical humanities, University of Sydney
  1. dochealth{at}indigo.ie

An exhibition of living artworks shows off our biotechnological advances while challenging our lack of ease with tissue engineering, finds Muiris Houston

Is medicine an art or a science? It’s a question as relevant in our highly technological age as it was when René Laennec invented the stethoscope in the early 1800s. Guidelines and protocols may guide assessments and treatment, but in the crucible of a patient interacting with his or her doctor, the art of medicine is often what makes the difference between a successful consultation and one that fails the patient.

Modern medicine does not offer much time for reflection. It’s a pity because within each patient’s narrative lies an opportunity to answer the key question: why is this person seeking medical help at this particular moment in time?

One of the attractions of Visceral: The Living Art Experiment, an exhibition currently on show at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin, is the opportunity to reflect on that space where art and science meet. A series of provocations and puzzles challenges us to consider the implications of modern biotechnology. The philosopher Marshall McLuhan regarded artists as canaries in the coalmine of scientific research, alerting us to the possible ways in which new technologies might transform social relations. At the core of all the artistic explorations in this exhibition is a strong sense that human intervention with life processes needs cultural interpretation.

The works on show were developed in SymbioticA, a research laboratory for biological artists in the school of anatomy and human biology at the University of Western Australia. It is there that art and science have collided for the past 10 years, and this exciting new exhibition is the result. To dismiss it as being only for those interested in science would be a great shame to those of a more artistic persuasion, and vice versa. Some, looking for science or art in their traditional sense, may not be happy, but the interesting hybrid that has been created will delight and intrigue many.

Although we live in an increasingly interactive world, it can feel a little surreal whispering your worries to a microphone beside the semi-living exhibit of worry dolls. These dolls are handcrafted out of degradable polymers and surgical sutures, but each has been seeded with living cells that gradually replace the polymers. Partially alive, they are inspired by the dolls that are given to children in Guatemala to whisper their worries to, to help induce sleep.

Silent Barrage, another work, uses signals from a dish of brain cells growing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States. The neurones communicate with a mechanical display at the gallery, and movement of the audience in Dublin sends a signal back to Georgia that alters the neurones’ response.

The subject matter of this show is not obvious, and neither are the works on display. Media usually confined to the laboratory—human tissue, fish semen, and insects—are used, as are other scientific paraphernalia. This exhibition could have been interpreted as artists taking the science lab hostage, but they have pulled it off with great success. Although on one level the projects can be appreciated for their artistic merit and beauty, they also have arresting concepts behind them. Works such as Proto-Animate20 and Let One Thousand Proteins Bloom are concerned with subjects that are very much at the forefront of medicine and science today. The artists have touched on everything from Alzheimer’s disease to DNA coding and epilepsy.

The beauty of this exhibition is that it can be appreciated on a visual level too. There is the almost oriental feel of Host, with its jars of live crickets suspended on long plastic stalks, bathed in green and blue lights, not to mention the sumptuous, if tiny, gold sculpture that is Midas.

Art and science, though at first glance seemingly different, are both deeply rooted in humanity, and Visceral shows that they can learn from each other. Science can too often be bogged down with facts and pragmatism. There can be a noticeable lack of abstract thinking that is needed to answer the new questions facing modern science. Likewise it can give gravitas to the big ideas now emerging in the art world, showing detractors that it is no longer just art for art’s sake but for science’s too.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1058

Footnotes

  • Visceral: The Living Art Experiment

  • An exhibition at the Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin

  • Until 25 February 2011; admission free

  • www.sciencegallery.com/visceral

  • Rating: ****

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.