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Art and Science in the Romantic Imagination

Creativity assumes a variety of natural, yet imaginary, forms in these painstakingly carved paper sculptures.

Rogan Brown

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
—William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
Click to Enlarge Image

At the beginning of the 19th century, the great Romantic poet William Blake gave voice to the widely held view that the way to human progress and fulfillment lies not in reason and science, but rather in the development of our ability to contemplate the small wonders of the world that surround us and that we barely notice. Blake was writing at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, which he saw as both a desecration of the land and a destruction of the age-old, intimate, and mystical relationship between Man and Nature. It’s ironic, therefore, that it is not mysticism that has shown us the hidden world in a grain of sand, but science itself.

From satellite images to electron micrographs, from particle physics to black holes, science has fundamentally altered the way we perceive the world. We can now see natural phenomena in immense detail at every level, understand how each element developed and evolved, and observe how it functions and interacts, from atoms to molecules to cell structures and beyond. No wonder it has become difficult for us to appreciate the perspective of the Romantic poets and artists, who saw in Nature and its repeated patterns an expression of intelligent design, of the Creator’s artistry and imagination. Yet in teaching us to see the natural world as beautiful, sublime, and mystical, the Romantics also taught us that it is worth valuing and preserving—a lesson we need today, perhaps, more than at any other time in our short existence on this planet.

In my work I try to square this circle, combining the Romantic and the scientific, the factual and the poetic, creating sculpture that makes reference to science and scientific imagery but also asserts the importance of the imagination and the creativity of the artist. Despite attempts by some neuroscientists (most notably Semir Zeki of University College London, pioneer of the field he has termed neuroaesthetics) to explain the workings of the imagination and how the brain processes art, no convincing explanation has yet been forthcoming. Thankfully, it remains a mystery.

Walking a narrow and sometimes contentious line between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, I make chimerical work that solicits the viewer’s recognition but ultimately subverts it by making multiple visual references simultaneously. This visual ambiguity is crucial: If the work were completely subordinate to the demands of scientific accuracy, then it would be simply scientific illustration. By contrast, art has to encourage the play of interpretation, because this is an essential aspect of the pleasure we derive from looking at it and contemplating it. Both acts, looking and contemplating, are at the heart of my work.

Let’s take as an example my sculpture Kernel, which emerged from a number of disparate sources of inspiration. While making preliminary sketches for this piece, I was living in a forest in the south of France, surrounded by chestnut trees. I became fascinated by the chestnut husks: Spiky green shells, painful to touch, but containing inside the smooth mahogany fruit—such a stunning contrast of texture and form. I noticed the resemblances to other vegetal forms such as the Venus flytrap plant and to certain types of pollen, but also to microorganisms such as the influenza virus. At the same time, I was studying anatomical drawings from Andreas Vesalius’s 16th-century text, De humani corpis fabrica libri septem; I was drawn to the beauty of these illustrations and their dynamic interplay between inner and outer, with the smooth skin cut away to reveal the intricacy and formal diversity inside the body.

Kernel emerges from the fusion of these different sources: chestnut, virus, and the internal structure of organs such as the heart and lungs. It is a completely hand-cut piece that took almost four months to create. Each layer was drawn by hand and then painstakingly cut with a scalpel knife—or perhaps I should say “dissected”—from sheet after sheet of paper.

Time is an important element in works such as these. Indeed, it is the fourth dimension made visible in every cut. Very few art forms call attention to the time and labor through which they have taken shape as well as paper cutting does. For me the creation of a work of art is ultimately an act of meditation as well as craft. The time spent and the immense accretion of detail found in my sculptures are means of winning the viewers’ attention. In an age in which no one has very much time, in which we are always in flux and continually bombarded by images scrolling across our retinas, it is increasingly difficult to encourage quiet moments of contemplation; artists must work ever harder to get people to pause, slow down, and open their eyes to see. This is also one of the reasons I choose to make sculpture rather than two-dimensional work: Click to Enlarge ImageSculpture has to be seen in the flesh, it cannot be fully appreciated on a screen. Moreover, because sculpture is an object in itself rather than the representation of an object, it asserts its own autonomy and thereby creates a more powerful, direct visual experience.

My first collaboration with scientists —an international group of individuals belonging to the Society of General Microbiology—was a project in 2014 for the creation of a permanent exhibition space focusing on the human microbiome. The exhibition, Invisible You, is funded by the Wellcome Trust and housed at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. Its aim is to modify public perceptions of bacteria—to open people’s eyes to the vast, hidden colony of microorganisms that live in and on their bodies and help them function in ways we are only beginning to understand. The project director had the bold idea of commissioning a group of artists to make work relating to this theme. I proposed creating a large-scale hand-cut sculpture of a single bacterium, not an accurate scientific model but an imagined representation, stylized and aestheticized to maximize visual impact.

After weeks of trawling through images of bacteria, I found myself drawn to Escherichia coli and salmonella because of their flagellate forms: slightly sinister and alien, but also aesthetically complex. My aim was to create a work of direct, visceral visual impact both in its scale and in the manipulation of certain formal features. I wanted to create that sense of awe and fear we experience when confronted by the sheer incomprehensible scale and beauty of nature that philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Emmanuel Kant called “the Sublime,” a concept that had a profound impact on the Romantic movement.

This piece, too, took five months of painstaking labor to complete, with the timescale working as a metaphor for the unimaginable scale of the bacterial world itself. At 1.12 meters in length, the sculpture is roughly half a million times larger than an actual bacterium. Obviously, it’s necessary to take creative liberties to envision a bacterium at this scale, and I was fortunate enough to be given creative freedom by the project director. I worked on embellishing the flagella (the long tail-like appendages that bacteria use to propel themselves through our bodies) and the pili (hairlike structures that allow them to stick to our intestinal wall). My goal was to create a sense of movement and lightness akin to that of a medusa in the ocean but also to depict something alien and potentially dangerous. Drawing on diagrammatic representations of bacteria, I chose to make a cutaway model revealing the precious cargo that each bacterium carries, namely its DNA. Because I was looking to create a stylized representation of DNA rather than a scientifically precise one, aesthetics took precedence over accuracy.

The work was received very positively and was picked up by several art and design websites. Images of Cut Microbe were beamed around the world, appearing in Wired magazine ( and the Huffington Post ( and even gaining a spot on primetime French television. I felt I had made a small contribution to raising public awareness of the microbiome and of changing perceptions by associating the idea of beauty with that of bacteria. Some dissent was voiced, however, by scientists who felt that I had embellished too much and had sacrificed scientific accuracy on the altar of aesthetics; I realized from this experience that collaborations between science and art can sometimes be contentious.

In listening to various microbiologists describing the microbiome, I began to visualize a biodiverse habitat working in harmony—that is, symbiotically with our bodies, like a vast forest of organisms of different shapes and sizes cohabiting and helping our bodies function. A series of sculptures I titled Magic Circle Variations is an attempt to create a stylized three- dimensional representation of this hidden world. This series consists of different motifs based on images of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, arranged in circular compositions. The circle alludes not only to the shape of the microscope lens and the petri dish but also to the Buddhist mandala (the Sanskrit word for “magic circle”). In the Buddhist tradition, mandalas are intricate objects of contemplation that symbolize unity and harmony; it is these aspects that I wished to associate with human microbiota. Click to Enlarge ImageAs in other works of mine, the goal was to alter viewers’ negative perception of bacteria by making an aesthetically pleasing work of art that engaged their attention. The level of detail and intricacy I wished to achieve in these pieces was such that I had to move beyond hand-cutting with a scalpel and embrace another tool of scientific dissection: After being drawn by hand and reduced in size, each motif was cut by a laser. I then layered the cuts into 3D “bouquets” and mounted them into complex compositions. The aim, as always in my work, was to overwhelm the eye with detail.

Two other pieces of mine offer a slightly more ambiguous representation of science and scientific progress. Outbreak and Control X both present a variety of microbiological organisms separated and contained inside an array of transparent domes. In each piece, one of the domes has been breached, spilling a swirling mass of bacteria.

On a simple level, these sculptures play with our fear of scientific research. Public attitudes toward science are strikingly bipolar: On one hand, we see it as the motor of human progress, potentially solving all our problems and advancing and enhancing us as a species; on the other hand, we see the terrible effects that science can wreak upon our world: nuclear and biological weapons, pollution, climate change, environmental devastation. The works therefore contain a warning that we must beware our own hubris and perhaps accept that we can never be fully in control of nature. Something always escapes us.

This realization brings us back to the Romantics, whose belief in the mystery of life and the power of nature was such a potent rejection of the Enlightenment—the Age of Reason, replaced by the Age of Reflection—and whose beautiful and compelling works still fascinate us today. Perhaps what is bursting from the petri dishes in these sculptures is the Romantic idea of the imagination itself, wild, ungoverned, and—for the moment, at least—still unexplained. The value of imagination was clear to no less a man of science than Albert Einstein himself, who declared it more important than knowledge: “For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.”

Art and science are each valid ways of seeing the world: Science makes us understand what we see, and art makes us feel it. Art can therefore act as a valuable bridge between science and the general public, taking the complex factual data that scientific research provides and, through craft and imagination, making it accessible and pleasurable for people without specialized training. But this engagement must be more than simple re-presentation of scientific fact and be more than simply an exercise in public relations. The gift of the artist in this context is that she or he can bring to bear a highly individual interpretation of science and therefore make the large-scale, collective endeavour of scientific research accessible to the individual sensibilities of all those we tend to efface in the expression “the general public.”

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