November 14, 2013
A century ago, a British art critic by the name of Clive Bell attempted to explain what makes art, well, art. He postulated that there is a “significant form”—a distinct set of lines, colors, textures and shapes—that qualifies a given work as art. These aesthetic qualities trigger a pleasing response in the viewer. And, that response, he argued, is universal, no matter where or when that viewer lives.
In 2010, neuroscientists at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University joined forces with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to conduct an experiment. What shapes are most pleasing, the group wondered, and what exactly is happening in our brains when we look at them? They had three hypotheses. It is possible, they thought, that the shapes we most prefer are more visually exciting, meaning that they spark intense brain activity. At the same time, it could be that our favorite shapes are serene and calm brain activity. Or, they surmised we very well might gravitate to shapes that spur a pattern of alternating strong and weak activity.
To investigate, the scientists created ten sets of images, which they hung on a wall at the Walters Art Museum in 2010. Each set included 25 shapes, all variations on a laser scan of a sculpture by artist Jean Arp. Arp’s work was chosen, in this case, because his sculptures are abstract forms that are not meant to represent any recognizable objects. Upon entering the exhibition, called “Beauty and the Brain,” visitors put on a pair of 3D glasses and then, for each image set, noted the their “most preferred” and “least preferred” shape on a ballot. The shapes were basically blobs with various appendages. The neuroscientists then reviewed the museum-goers’ responses in conjunction with fMRI scans taken on lab study participants looking at the very same images.
“We wanted to be rigorous about it, quantitative, that is, try to really understand what kind of information neurons are encoding and…why some things would seem more pleasing or preferable to human observers than other things. I have found it to be almost universally true in data and also in audiences that the vast majority have a specific set of preferences,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed,” an exhibition now on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., allows others to participate in the exercise, while also reporting the original experiment’s results. Ultimately, the scientists found that visitors like shapes with gentle curves as opposed to sharp points. And, the magnetic brain imaging scans of the lab participants prove the team’s first hypothesis to be true: these preferred shapes produce stronger responses and increased activity in the brain.
As Johns Hopkins Magazine so eloquently put it, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”
Now, you might expect, as the neuroscientists did, that sharp objects incite more of a reaction, given that they can signal danger. But the exhibition offers up some pretty sound reasoning for why the opposite may be true.
“One could speculate that the way we perceive sculpture relates to how the human brain is adapted for optimal information processing in the natural world,” reads the display. “Shallow convex surface curvature is characteristic of living organisms, because it is naturally produced by the fluid pressure of healthy tissue (e.g. muscle) against outer membranes (e.g. skin). The brain may have evolved to process information about such smoothly rounded shapes in order to guide survival behaviors like eating, mating and predator evasion. In contrast, the brain may devote less processing to high curvature, jagged forms, which tend to be inorganic (e.g. rocks) and thus less important.”
Another group of neuroscientists, this time at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, actually found similar results when looking at people’s preferences in architecture. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, they reported that test subjects shown 200 images—of rooms with round columns and oval ottomans and others with boxy couches and coffee tables—were much more likely to call the former “beautiful” than the latter. Brain scans taken while these participants were evaluating the interior designs showed that rounded decor prompted significantly more brain activity, much like what the Johns Hopkins group discovered.
“It’s worth noting this isn’t a men-love-curves thing: twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure,” writes Eric Jaffe on Co.Design.
Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum and guest curator of the AAAS show, finds “Beauty and the Brain Revealed” to support Clive Bell’s postulation on significant form as a universal basis for art, as well as the idea professed by some in the field of neuroaesthetics that artists have an intuitive sense for neuroscience. Maybe, he claims, the best artists are those that tap into shapes that stimulate the viewer’s brain.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2014.
May 10, 2013
The worlds of architecture and scientific illustration collided when Macoto Murayama was studying at Miyagi University in Japan. The two have a great deal in common, as far as the artist’s eye could see; both architectural plans and scientific illustrations are, as he puts it, “explanatory figures” with meticulous attention paid to detail. “An image of a thing presented with massive and various information is not just visually beautiful, it is also possible to catch an elaborate operation involved in the process of construction of this thing,” Murayama once said in an interview.
In a project he calls “Inorganic flora,” the 29-year-old Japanese artist diagrams flowers. He buys his specimens—sweetpeas (Lathyrus odoratus L. , Asiatic dayflowers (Commelina communis L.) and sulfur cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus Cav.), to name a few—from flower stands or collects them from the roadside. Murayama carefully dissects each flower, removing its petals, anther, stigma and ovaries with a scalpel. He studies the separate parts of the flower under a magnifying glass and then sketches and photographs them.
Using 3D computer graphics software, the artist then creates models of the full blossom as well as of the stigma, sepals and other parts of the bloom. He cleans up his composition in Photoshop and adds measurements and annotations in Illustrator, so that in the end, he has created nothing short of a botanical blueprint.
“The transparency of this work refers not only to the lucid petals of a flower, but to the ambitious, romantic and utopian struggle of science to see and present the world as [a] transparent (completely seen, entirely grasped) object,” says Frantic Gallery, the Tokyo establishment that represents the artist, on its Web site.
Murayama chose flowers as his subject because they have interesting shapes and, unlike traditional architectural structures, they are organic. But, as he has said in an interview, “When I looked closer into a plant that I thought was organic, I found in its form and inner structure hidden mechanical and inorganic elements.” After dissecting it, he added, “My perception of a flower was completely changed.”
His approach makes sense when you hear who Murayama counts among his influences—Yoshihiro Inomoto, a celebrated automotive illustrator, and Tomitaro Makino, an esteemed botanist and scientific illustrator.
Spoon & Tamago, a blog on Japanese design, says that the illustrations “look like they belong in a manual for semiconductors.” Certainly, by portraying his specimens in a manner that resembles blueprints, Murayama makes flowers, with all their intricacies, look like something human-made, something engineered.
March 12, 2013
The aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is a spectacle to behold—so much so, that it is hard to put into words. I think Smithsonian‘s former senior science editor, Laura Helmuth, did it justice a few years back. “Try to imagine the most colorful, textured sunset you’ve ever seen, then send it swirling and pulsing across an otherwise clear and starry sky,” she wrote.
Helmuth also handily described the physics behind the natural phenomenon:
“Your planet is being buffeted by solar wind—particles of protons and electrons that the sun spews into space. Some of the charged particles get sucked into the earth’s magnetic field and flow toward the pole until they collide with our atmosphere. Then, voilà: the aurora borealis (or aurora australis, if you happen to be at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere.)”
Of course, the experience of viewing the Northern Lights, particularly for residents of the contiguous United States, is a rare but privileged one. (Smithsonian actually includes the aurora borealis on its “Life List” of places to go and things to do and see before you die.) Places above 60 degrees latitude—Alaska, Canada’s Yukon, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, for instance—are prime spots for seeing the lights show, usually around the fall and spring equinoxes. But, occasionally, it can be seen farther south. I witnessed it once in Vermont. The sight was intoxicating.
It is really no wonder, then, that artists find inspiration in the Northern Lights.
Danish lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug saw the aurora borealis several times in 2012, while he was working on stage lighting for a run of “Hamlet” at the Halogaland Theatre in Tromsø, Norway. He also talked with locals there about their encounters with it. So, when the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. commissioned an installation from him mimicking the Northern Lights, Kongshaug had these experiences and conversations to inform him. He planned for about 11 months, collaborating with the Baltimore-based company Image Engineering, and his “Northern Lights” debuted on February 20, 2012, in conjunction with Nordic Cool 2013, a month-long festival celebrating the cultures of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Greenland. Each night from 5:30 to 11 p.m., until the festival’s end on March 17, a total of 10 lasers positioned around the Kennedy Center project the green and blue streamers of the aurora borealis onto all four sides of the building’s white marble facade.
Inspired by Kongshaug’s installation, I did some exploring and found some other fascinating Northern Lights-inspired projects:
Paul Moravec, a composer and Pulitzer Prize winner in music, released a new album this past December, “Northern Lights Electric,” with four songs performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. “My own music often seems to involve some physical, tangible catalyst,” says Moravec on the liner notes. The album’s title song is his attempt to capture, in music, the Northern Lights, which the composer witnessed once in New Hampshire. “The 12-minute piece begins with tinkling percussion, billowing strings and a searching motive in the woodwinds. Then brass suddenly shoots up like a spray of multi-colored lights. Spacious, Coplandesque chords depict the immense night sky,” wrote Tom Huizenga on NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence. Listen to part of the composition, here.
Johan Lans prefers to be called “food creator” or “designer for new dishes” as opposed to head chef at Camp Ripan, a hotel, conference center and restaurant, in Kiruna, Sweden. A native of the northernmost city in Sweden, Lans is very familiar with the Northern Lights. In fact, he has designed an entire dinner menu with tastes, smells, sounds, colors and shapes that he believes conjure up the phenomenon. Bright vegetables and local fish ornately plated, an entree of hare and concoctions like “cucumber snow”—skip to 4:25 in this TEDxTalk, to watch Lans describe these and other the dishes.
Completed just this year, the Cathedral of the Northern Lights in Alta, Norway, is a landmark built to honor—and complement—the aurora borealis, commonly seen in the town located 310 miles north of the Arctic Circle. “The contours of the church rise as a spiralling shape to the tip of the belfry 47 metres [154 feet] above the ground,” the architectural firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen explains on its Web site. “The facade, clad in titanium, reflects the northern lights during the long periods of Arctic winter darkness and emphasizes the experience of the phenomenon.” Check out these images.
At this year’s London Fashion Week, from February 15-19, English designer Matthew Williamson unveiled his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection of knit sweaters, pleated skirts and sequin dresses. “It was inspired by the idea of an English Rose, that kind of quintessentially British girl, and I wanted her to take a journey to the Northern Lights, where I saw these toxic colors and amazing neon skies,” Williamson told Reuters. See some of his designs in this video.
February 21, 2013
When Julia Lohmann set out to create an artwork for the street-level windows of the London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, the health research foundation, she chose a classic subject: the female body. But where Lohmann broke from tradition was her medium. The German designer created her large-scale portrait of two reclining nudes using 9,000 petri dishes, each containing an image of live bacteria.
Suzanne Lee, a British fashion designer, is attempting to grow clothes. She cultivates bacteria in vats of sugary green tea and then harvests the cellulose that forms on the mixture’s surface. The durable film serves as a pleatherlike fabric.
The Italian artist Giuliano Mauri planted 80 hornbeam trees amid columns of bundled branches in Arte Sella, a sculpture garden in northern Italy. The trees inch up the columns to form Cattedrale Vegetale, a Gothic cathedral complete with naves.
All these works are prominent examples of a nascent aesthetic movement called biodesign, which integrates living things, including bacteria, plants and animals, into installations, products and artworks. “Designers and architects, more and more, want to design objects and buildings that grow by themselves,” says Paola Antonelli, design curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
Biodesign takes advantage of the “tremendous power and potential utility of organisms and their natural interaction with ecosystems around them,” says William Myers, a New York City design historian and author of the new book Bio Design: Nature + Science + Creativity. “It can be a means of communication and discovery, a way to provoke debate and explore the potential opportunities and dangers of manipulating life for human purposes.”
Some ventures are very down-to-earth. Microbiologist Henk Jonkers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is developing self-repairing “bio-concrete”; he adds limestone-producing bacteria to cement and, over time, they fill in cracks. If adopted widely, the material could benefit the environment, since concrete production is a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Other proposals read more like science fiction. Alberto Estévez, an architect based in Barcelona, wants to replace streetlights with glowing trees created by inserting a bioluminescent jellyfish gene into the plants’ DNA.
The biodesign movement builds on ideas in Janine Benyus’ trailblazing 1997 book Biomimicry, which urges designers to look to nature for inspiration. But instead of copying living things biodesigners make use of them.
The effort brings artists and scientists together. “These novel collaborations are often joyous contaminations in which scientists feel, even just for a moment, liberated from the rigor of peer review and free to attempt intuitive leaps,” Antonelli writes in a foreword to Bio Design.
Julia Lohmann teamed up with Michael Wilson, a microbiologist at University College London Eastman Dental Institute. Wilson, who studies the bacteria that inhabit people, grew common bacteria from the female body and photographed the colonies under a microscope. Lohmann affixed these photographs to actual petri dishes and positioned each type of bacteria where it would occur on or in a woman’s body—pictures of the scalp microbe Propionibacteria, for instance, cover the head.
“The petri dish is a magnifying glass into this other world,” says Lohmann, who was inspired by the mind-bending fact that only one in ten cells in the human body is actually human. The rest are microbes. “There is so much advertising out there that tells you that all bacteria are bad, and it is simply not true. We couldn’t live without bacteria, and they couldn’t live without us,” says Lohmann. She considers her mural Co-existence to be part of the counter propaganda.