Tuesday 16 August 2011


The marriage of art with science stretches back to Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of dissections in the 15th century, but today scientists and artists are finding new ways of collaboration. Body-imaging techniques, in particular, have particular appeal for artists.

Dr Mark Lythgoe, a neuroscientist and director of the Centre of Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London, says that many artists come into laboratories and science institutions and work with scientists. And sci-art funding strategies, such as that provided by the Wellcome Trust (see panel below) promote collaborations between artists and scientists.

Highly sophisticated imaging techniques such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and CT (computed tomography, a technique for looking at the body in sections) scans, have opened up the visual side of human biology to artists. Our new intimate knowledge of brain structures raises questions of where in this mass of cells does personality begin and biology end?

Dr Lythgoe says: “Just taking MRI, CT and microscopic images and sticking them in an art gallery doesn’t make something art.” The best sci-art collaborations, he says, are about developing a new way of seeing.

Dr Lizzie Burns, a scientist-turned-artist, wants to bring complex scientific ideas and imagery into the public domain, hence her forthcoming Art of the Brain workshop, at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London. Participants will learn about how the brain works through images of brain cells, and can then create their own images and impressions of the brain on paper and in clay. “Art is a good tool to get people excited about science,” she says.

Art of the Brain is at the Dana Centre, 165 Queen’s Gate, London SW5, on Tuesday. www.danacentre.org.uk; 020-7942 4040


Angela Palmer’s first scientific inspiration came from viewing the Nobel prize-winner Dorothy Hodgkin’s model of penicillin at the History of Science Museum, in Oxford. Struck by how such a simple object – made from Perspex – could demonstrate such a complex subject, Palmer vowed to put a similar design principle to work in her art.

She was studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford and soon had the chance to draw the corpses in the dissection rooms. Her interest in human anatomy led her to contact Stephen Golding, the head of radiology at the John Radcliffe Hospital, where she had a series of full-body MRI scans to look deeper at the human body.

Palmer layers images from MRI scans to produce a human “topography” of the body. The resulting ethereal etchings focus on the internal architecture of the body. “When you’re looking at a scan of me,” she says, “you could be looking at anybody and that’s what’s interesting. I didn’t want to distort my MRI portraits in any way. I wanted to be completely true to the scanner.”

Palmer, who was an award-winning journalist before she becoming a full-time artist, has a number of projects on the go, including one working with scientists and archaeologists to “uncover” an Egyptian child mummy through CT scans. Palmer, who completes her postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art this year, says: “It enables us to recreate this child without disturbing him.”

Dr Chris Avery, an academic radiographer at John Radcliffe Hospital, worked with Palmer on the MRI sequences. He says: “This crossover between art and reality bridges the gap between science and art, making it more real to people.” He adds that it’s “rewarding to see your work transformed into another medium. It’s the finest accolade that your work is good enough to form the basis of something else”.

The MRI portraits will be at the Royal College of Medicine, London, from October; angelaspalmer.com


Paula Garcia Stone has lived with diabetes since she was 15. She was a figurative painter in Madrid until the early 1990s, when ill health forced her to return to the UK. She then began to use her condition in her work.

Faced with deteriorating sight and the threat of blindness, she began making collages from the medical pictures of her retina taken during her treatment, which were photographed with a camera using UV light. She says that using her health in her art was a way of regaining control: “Starting to see the inside of myself helped to objectify it.”

She had lens transplants to save her sight and is registered as partially sighted. “Diabetes can affect you everywhere,” she says. “It has affected my nervous system, arteries, digestive system, joints and tendons. A lot of the imaging covers all those areas.”

Garcia Stone’s work has moved deeper into the body, her images becoming increasingly complex as medical technology advances and more detail is revealed. A current fascination is cell sounds, a method of listening to viruses and bacteria that are extracted from blood samples. This uses resonant acoustic profiling, developed to enable on-the-spot detection of infections. Garcia Stone explored this in her Cellsonance exhibition last year.

Dr Matthew Cooper, the founder and director of the acoustics detection company Akubio, supplied Garcia Stone with the cell sounds to use in her work. He says: “Most people are very visual. She has combined some of our acoustic technology and techniques and translated them into visible images with sound.” He says that she “gives a fresh perspective” to what can seem to be “quite dry data”.

Garcia Stone is applying for funding to collaborate more closely with Dr Cooper, possibly working with her own cell sounds for future artworks. “I feel like I’m just beginning,” she says.

To see more Garcia Stone visit pgs.myzen.co.uk


Susan Aldworth will always remember Christmas 1999 as the time when she lay in hospital watching herself think. The artist was undergoing a brain scan for a suspected tumour. Fortunately it proved to be a false alarm, but the experience was so profound that it has shaped her work.

“It was this extraordinary moment of suddenly having a huge insight into the philosophy of our mind,” she says. “If I am just material stuff, where’s me in all this? The arteries of the brain are very beautiful to look at. I found my subject matter by default.”

After her scare, Aldworth contacted Dr Paul Butler, the consultant neuroradiologist at Royal London Hospital who had conducted her procedure. She was given permission to sit in on brain scans to observe and draw, leading her to create Brainscapes, 30 “very intimate portraits” of the patients she monitored. Dr Butler sees his collaboration with Aldworth as “a great morale boost” for the department at the Royal London Hospital.

Aldworth – who studied philosophy before becoming an artist – says: “This fascination with who we are has become another frontier to look at and that’s largely due to science.

“Nowadays there’s fantastic technology that means you can get closer to seeing how the brain works and I think that’s why the technology had to become part of my work.

“I had incredible footage of scanning procedures and I’d seen so much technology that to go away and do pretty painting wasn’t enough any more; I had to engage with the technology as well as the subject matter.”

Aldworth has a new residency at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London and is preparing to work with scientists at the Newcastle Institute of Neuroscience, “who are working on a microscopic level trying to understand what’s going on in the brain”.

The accompanying exhibition will open next year.

Visit susanaldworth.com to see more of Aldworth’s work

Wellcome move

Sir Henry Wellcome, the US-born pharmacist and founder of the Wellcome Trust, collected more than a million objects, scalpels and other surgical instruments as well as hundreds of cookbooks, dozens of chairs and art treasures by Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

His broad view of what medicine really meant – developing understanding as much as developing technology – still informs the work of the trust. The trust, which has funded science-art collaborations for more than a decade, next month opens the Wellcome Collection, a £30 million public venue to explore human wellbeing through medicine, life and art.

It will feature some of Sir Henry’s collection, alongside live events and debates.

The Wellcome Collection opens June 21, at 183 Euston Rd, London NW1. wellcomecollection.org, 020-7611 2222

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