"Haeckel Actiniae" by Ernst Haeckel

Art and science are usually held up as two opposing disciplines. However, arguably very similar abilities are needed to be an artist and a scientist: an ability to observe the world in detail, to perhaps notice things that other people don’t, to creatively come up with ideas and to draw novel connections. Biology has a long history of scientists who have also been artists, whether they would identify themselves this way or not. A classic example is Ernst Haeckel, a 19th century German naturalist who drew over 100 detailed and ‘completely exact’ (in his words) images of animals for his book, ‘Art Forms of Nature’.

Art and science can connect in many ways: art can represent science, but science can also enhance art. At the University of Arizona, the Museum of Art is collaborating with scientific departments to look at a Rothko painting under a range of different light temperatures. By doing so, they change how the colours in the painting are perceived by us. Often we cannot be sure what lighting conditions an artist was working under (especially with older paintings), and this exhibit highlights how subtle differences in lighting can have dramatic effects on how we see a piece of art.

Art can also show science in a new light. I recently travelled to LA to see an exhibition: ‘A better nectar’ by the artist Jessica Rath. Rath came and visited the lab I work in at the University of Nevada, Reno after hearing the head of my lab, Dr Anne Leonard, speak on the radio about her research. As a scientist, it was great to be able to talk about the work that I do with someone with a totally different, more creative, perspective. In our conversations, Rath had an ability to listen to what I had to say about something I was working on and then describe it to me from a perspective I had never considered before. I think that we scientists often get stuck in one way of thinking and having someone challenge your perspective on things can feel rather refreshing.

Three human-sized bumblebee cells

The exhibition Rath created was based around bumblebee perception and bees’ relationship to flowers, specifically through buzz-pollination. Her work is not a science museum-style presentation explaining science. Instead, she took the essence of what the bees do and how they likely experience the world (after doing a lot of in depth research), and then turned it into a form that we could appreciate as humans.

As you walk into the main room of the exhibition you enter the ‘Resonant Nest’. This consists of human-size bumblebee cells. As someone who has spent the past two years seeing these cells every day, with bumblebee workers sticking their heads into them to regurgitate nectar, it was exciting to see a human-sized one. Actually, ‘exciting’ is an understatement; think Disneyland for bee scientists. The translucent wax-like structures create a calming atmosphere through the way they seemed to glow with the light in the room, accompanied by a resonant piece representing the bees’ behaviour (but recorded using human voices; to hear one of them click here). Rath’s collaborator, Robert Hoehn came up with the idea for the sound using a scientific method. Hoehn also happens to keep honeybees and he decided to observe his honeybees at different times of day and with different weather patterns. When it was colder and wetter, the bees went inside their colony and huddled together. However, when it was warmer and dryer, the bees were outside, energetically foraging and bringing back lots of food for their developing larvae. To match the behaviour of the bees, Hoehn composed 5 pieces of music: Languid Wander, Afternoon Forage, Early Sunset, Quiet Sleep and Cold Huddle. As the daylight and weather changes outside the museum, so the music that accompanies the giant colony structure inside the museum changes, representing the change that the colony would be going through if it were alive.

Rath’s exhibit also contains a piece that creates a representation of what a bee might experience as she flies across her colour-rich world, as well as some beautiful Dali-esque giant anthers (real anthers actually look remarkably like these alien-like representations). A section of the exhibit was also dedicated to representing the lab we work in, including some photos taken in the lab and books on bee research.

'Bee Purple', an immersive installation based upon bee vision
'Staminal Evolution', a representation of the anther of Arctostaphylos densiflora

Aside from the art itself, what was really exciting to see was that people were learning about bee behaviour from the art. Here, art can do something that is much harder to achieve through science alone: it can create an experience for people where they learn about science through an intense, emotional and multi-modal representation of it.


Photo Credits

“Haeckel Actiniae” by Ernst Haeckel – Kunstformen der Natur (1904)

Photos of A Better Nectar exhibit: Brian Forrest

To find out more about A Better Nectar, see here